in conversation with Prof. Deborah Krohn...

posted on 03 Dec 2012 22:12 by Elena Pinto Simon
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EPS: Hello, Professor Krohn, and welcome to LEARNING FROM THINGS. You are currently working in a field that is growing in scholarly interest: food and culinary history. Can you tell us about your work in this field?

DK: At first, I turned to early modern cookbooks and recipe collections to learn about vessels used for preparing and serving food, thinking that I could build richer contexts for these objects through what I considered to be primary documents. But in order to hear the voices of the cooks or stewards who wrote them, and to imagine the audiences for these texts, I realized that lots more information was needed. This research took me in two directions: I’ve been working in the area of the cultural history of food, and the history of the book and of reading. Recipes are repositories of knowledge about nature: animal, vegetable, and mineral. But to decode them, one also needs to explore the medium of the book and the book as an object. I’ve looked at everything from herbals to agricultural treatises, and am continuing to explore these areas in both teaching and research. The preparation of food was itself a craft – it still is – that was subject to the same economic and social constraints as the creation of works of art.

EPS: It is always interesting to hear about very current research. Would you talk about the book you are currently researching?

DK:The working title of the book is Bartolomeo Scappi’s Paper Kitchen: Food and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe. Scappi was a papal chef in 16th century Rome and the author of the first illustrated cookbook. I became fascinated with the illustrations, which featured ideal kitchens, pots, pans and other tools, and a unique representation of food service for a papal conclave. Whose idea was it to include images like this? Who was the intended audience? Who created the images, and where were they made? In order to answer these questions, I’ve been learning about the history of the book and print culture as well as cardinals and collectors in Renaissance Rome. I’ve been trying to find as many copies of the book, which went through 7 editions over 75 years, with visible traces of readers in the form of marks or marginalia. This has taken me to many American and European libraries to see copy after copy. As I suspected, this cookbook was used almost like a reference book, with sections including recipes, menus, and guides for choosing the best meats or vegetables. Scappi’s patrons were renowned collectors of antiquities, so I am also exploring this angle.

EPS: You have headed our curriculum in the area of museum history and theory in recent years. How do you see the history of collecting, and the history of museums and exhibitions as part of the main mission of the BGC?

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DK: Museums and collections are the frames within which we experience a majority of the objects that we study at BGC. It is impossible to separate objects – they way they are classified and categorized – from their histories both of facture and of reception. But museums and collections are not neutral vessels. They are the products of social, economic, and political forces, and understanding this interface is essential. The exhibition is a medium through which ideas and objects are filtered. We need to understand how exhibitions function, how they present and organize information, and how they are generated. On a more practical level, many of our students will go on to work in museums or galleries, so a grounding in the historical and theoretical underpinnings of the institution of the museum is essential for becoming a thoughtful museum professional.

EPS: Could you tell us a little about your own background, and how you came to cultural history/ and material culture studies?

DK: As an undergrad at Princeton, I was very torn between the department of History and Art History. To keep my options open, I participated in an interdisciplinary program called European Cultural Studies. I was fortunate to have the chance to spend the year after graduation as a Fulbright fellow in Florence, during which I decided to return to Princeton to enter a PhD program in art history the following year. Once again, I chose to join an interdisciplinary program in Italian Studies, through which I did course work in history and languages as well as in art history. Researching my doctoral dissertation in a small archive in Tuscany, I kept being distracted by mentions in the documents about food, building materials, picture frames, clothing, and other material objects as they circulated in and out of the lives of the people whose records I was mining. Returning to New York City after completing my PhD at Harvard University, I worked for several years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Being surrounded by objects and having more or less free rein to develop gallery tours and other teaching instruments, I was able to pursue my interests in the area of decorative arts and material culture studies. Since coming to the BGC in 2002, I have had the opportunity to pursue these interests further through the teaching of material culture and cultural history. My years in the Museum have given me a perspective on the world of things that I greatly value and that I try to bring into all of my teaching and advising at BGC.

EPS: As one of our early modern/renaissance specialists, you are working in an area that has seen a growth of interest at the BGC. What more might you like to see us do in this area?

DK: Over the next few years, I hope to develop a course that addresses what we might call Renaissance Design History, looking at the careers of artists and architects such as Leonardo da Vinci, Benvenuto Cellini, Filippo Brunelleschi, and Leon Battista Alberti, among others. I look forward to co-teaching early modern courses with my colleagues Andrew Morrall and Jeffrey Collins.

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