Recently, the John J. Burns Library opened an exhibition of menus. This exhibition highlights the changes in dining out from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. Our archivists spent weeks combing through collections to find the best menus and ephemera including menus from Boston College academic and athletic events, Boston restaurant menus, menus collected by important literary figures from dinners and events, and menus from Boston clubs and associations. After all this scouring, we ended up with more menus than we were able to include. Thus, we began the process of picking the most interesting and displayable ones. To see our choices, visit the main exhibit space outside the Burns library reading room from January 21-May 7. But for now, here’s a look at what didn’t make the cut.
Conservation issues can be one of the most disappointing reasons for rejecting objects for exhibition. While we are excited to share all the great things we find, our priority is to preserve these items for research and sometimes objects can’t take the strain of exhibition. What strain? Well, some artifacts are already previously damaged (mold, water damage, torn pages), so they’re too delicate. Others have other seemingly simple, but serious issues like it being too heavy to mount or perch on a stand and keep open. Sometimes it’s not about the object at all but about the exhibition space. There can be too much light, and the artifact might fade. Or it’s too hot, too cold, too dry, or too humid for a particular item. We have to factor in all these aspects so as not to put our collections at risk.
We ran into almost all these issues with some fabulous scrapbooks full of really interesting menus. Scrapbooks in general can be a conservator’s nightmare. Photographs, newspaper clippings, and other memorabilia are glued into scrapbooks and onto acidic paper. But scrapbooking is and was a very popular hobby, and many archival collections have scrapbooks. And despite the headaches that can come from trying to preserve them, they have really interesting items hidden within. One scrapbook had a menu and invitation to a White House luncheon held on June 16, 1964. The invitation was sent to Jane Jacobs, writer and urban planning critic, by then First Lady Johnson. The luncheon menu featured “strawberry mousse White House” and a wine pairing. But both the menu and the invitation were glued to a scrapbook page, making it impractical for our exhibition.
Ease of display is another important factor. A menu for the Mission Inn in Riverside, California, features a fun and interesting layout. The front resembles the doors to the inn and has two pages that fold outwards (like opening double doors). Images from the rest of the building are featured on the back and inside of the menu, making it seem like you’re opening the doors into the restaurant. Once you flatten it, though, it loses most of its charm. And since interactive exhibit items weren’t within our reach, this menu had to be cut.
The last issue that we faced is not actually a problem at all: we found too many menus. Some scrapbooks at the Burns have nothing but menus! Collections like the Commercial Club of Boston, featuring scrapbooks and loose menus from the club’s events dating from the 1870s to the 1950s, are full of detailed and themed menus, but we only had room for a few. In the end, we chose menus that were both visually interesting and relevant to the story the exhibit was meant to tell.
To learn more about this exhibit or any of the collections featured here, come see the exhibit from January 21-May 7 or contact the Burns Library staff at 617-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To see more images of menus, visit the Burns Library flickr page.
- Jessica Meyer and Xaviera Flores, Processing Assistants, John J. Burns Library