- The Washington Times - Friday, June 21, 2002

Joe Criste and Rob Barrett have made a mess in Julia Child's kitchen. The two exhibit specialists at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History have torn apart very delicately the 89-year-old chef's famous kitchen at her old house in Cambridge, Mass. Now they are beginning to put it back together for an exhibit here in Washington.

Seafoam green-painted cabinets are scattered around carefully in a room down under the hustle and bustle of the Smithsonian. This windowless room in the basement is Mr. Barrett's and Mr. Criste's workstation complete with excess wood, sawing machines, tools and lots of sawdust.

Some of the oversized cabinets and drawers are on their side, placed on dollies ready to be transported to the first floor of the museum, while others are getting additional screws to help hold them together. Everything is marked and carefully recorded down to a paint chip that has fallen from a piece of trim around a cabinet.

It's Mr. Barrett's and Mr. Criste's job to recreate the 14- by 20-foot kitchen where Mrs. Child became an American cooking icon. It will be an 18-month exhibit that opens at the American History museum on Aug. 19, coinciding with the chef's 90th birthday on Aug. 15.

Mrs. Child donated the contents of this customized kitchen, including everything from measuring cups, spatula and cookbooks to baking pans, pots and her six-burner Garland commercial range. The cabinets, sink and even the Pegboards that held dozens of kitchen supplies will be part of the exhibit.

The Pegboards, now leaning up against the walls in the Smithsonian basement, have hand-drawn outlines of all the utensils, pots and pans that hung there. The outlines were used to direct Mrs. Child and her many guest chefs where to put all the dishes when they were through using them.

On this day Mr. Barrett and Mr. Criste are re-creating the trim around the doors and closets in the kitchen. It was one of the elements of the room left behind at the house, which was donated to Smith College and has since been sold.

Right now the pieces of wood are bare and being shaped to resemble the exact design around all the doors. They will eventually be painted and nailed into the exhibit space.

As part of the historic restoration shop at the museum, Mr. Barrett and Mr. Criste can't cut, saw, break off, repaint or change any of the original pieces in the more than 40-year-old kitchen.

"If anything doesn't fit, we need to reproduce it," Mr. Criste says.

They had to get permission from the curator to even screw much-needed supports in the back of some of the cabinets to make them more sturdy.

The kitchen was designed and built by Mrs. Child's husband, Paul, in 1961. Since the kitchen wasn't professionally done, the dismantling and rebuilding makes it a bit more challenging.

"It's more work for us," Mr. Criste says.

By the time the exhibit is complete, they will have spent about 1,000 hours on the project.

In December the duo, along with two other Smithsonian officials went to the house to take the kitchen apart.

It took about a couple of days to completely dismantle the once aroma-filled room, pack it up and transport it back to Washington. The team found some unexpected artifacts like an old recipe, menu and knives that had fallen behind the counter.

Mr. Barrett and Mr. Criste are just two of the dozens of people who are restoring Mrs. Child's kitchen at the museum. Curators and other staff have spent countless hours cleaning dishes and cataloging all 1,200 pieces and making the plexiglass that will allow the public to see into the kitchen once its on display.

Since the deadline for the exhibit is fast approaching, the museum hired contractors to build out the exhibit space something that's usually done by Mr. Criste and Mr. Barrett for other exhibits they've worked on.

"Time is very tight," Mr. Criste said.

Over the next several days, the team will finish preparing all the cabinetry and creating the trim while waiting for the contractors to finish the space. Next week they will assist in laying down the kitchen floor, a mosaiclike pattern that has been re-created on a computer from a sample of the original flooring.

Over the next few weeks they will install the cabinets, put up the trim and paint it.

The last week or two before the exhibit opens Mr. Barrett and Mr. Criste will pitch in wherever they are needed, they say.

In between trying to get the kitchen complete, the two are also working on other exhibits including one on West Point scheduled to open in mid-October and another commemorative exhibit of artifacts, images and stories surrounding the September 11 terrorist attacks

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