In preparing for English Taste, we spent considerable time at the dining tables of 18th-century England, but on the way stopped into the annals of 21st-century technology.
For its very first exhibition, Rienzi is offering an audio tour by use of individual MP3 players. Visitors are invited to listen to a series of voice recordings featuring discussion on historic dining, including 18th-century etiquette, decorative motifs, and authentic period recipes. This is a big development for a house whose acoustics are more often used for opera or chamber music on period instruments, and whose sound system reached its apogee with a mid-1970s Hi-Fi Stereogram record player (still intact in a hidden wall cabinet).
To do this, a group from the MFAH ventured to Wire Road Studios in the Heights, a recording studio worthy of our 18th-century elocution. Co-curators of English Taste—Christine Gervais, associate curator at the MFAH, and Ivan Day, food historian—were present, as was Shirley Hopkins, a longtime Rienzi docent and committee member. Ivan spoke extemporaneously (and with astonishing ease) on the history of 18th-century dining, giving a fascinating background on the life of Mrs. Elizabeth Raffald, the author whose cookbook guided our exhibition plans. (A first-edition copy of the book from 1769, signed by Mrs. Raffald, along with several other period cookbooks, is on view in the Isla’s Room Gallery at Rienzi.) Shirley recorded several recipes (“receipts,” as the author refers to them) as Mrs. Raffald herself, with the crisp and animated precision that one would expect from a former housekeeper of a grand country estate.
As a member of the curatorial staff (and perhaps because I was the American accent in the group), I spoke on behalf of Rienzi’s collection, with recordings on the Rococo style, and on several of the objects on view in the dining room. Standing alone in a small cupboard of a room, wearing earphones, and leaning into a microphone is not a terribly comforting experience—and I can now say that I empathize better with King George VI (or Colin Firth, however you better imagine the scene) on the eve of his epic speech.