Housekeeping and social justice

Home Economics exhibit panorama

“Unfinished Business” takes a 21st century look at domestic work. (Click on image for larger file size)


“An adult diaper, a pill box, a plain spiral notebook, a yellow sponge, a mess of bank documents, a photo album, a broom. Each of these items rests in a specially constructed vitrine at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum.”

So begins an award-winning essay on “Unfinished Business: 21st Century Home Economics,” a current exhibit at the museum.

The American Alliance of Museums named the essay by Heather Radke, exhibitions coordinator, as the Brooking Paper on Creativity and published it in the May/June issue of its magazine, Museum.

The honor recognizes programs “that produce new ways of thinking and seeing.”

“Unfinished Business” does that by juxtaposing the early 20th-century social reform movement known as home economics with contemporary social justice issues affecting housekeepers and home health care workers.

Radke focused on a missing link in Hull-House’s historic dedication to social justice, first as a settlement house for immigrants and now as a museum.

Home Economics exhibit wall

The exhibit includes items from local domestic workers. (Click on image for larger file size)

“It was many years before our staff turned its attention to an obvious question: Who did the domestic work at the Hull-House Settlement?” Radke wrote.

Hull-House archives produced the answer: Mary Keyser, head of the Labor Bureau for Women, ran the household from 1889 until she died in 1897.

“We not only present Keyser’s story and display an iron she might have used, we also display the artifacts of contemporary domestic workers who, like Keyser, are both taking care of domestic spaces and fighting for fair working conditions for all domestic workers,” Radke wrote.

Hands-on historic artifacts raise awareness, Radke notes.

“Visitors are not meant to merely gaze upon old-fashioned sewing machines and imagine the labor of 19th-century garment workers. Instead they are asked to sit down and use these sewing machines to transform an old T-shirt into a tote bag as they contemplate their role as consumers in society.”

Radke sought curatorial input from a labor activist group, the Chicago Coalition for Household Workers, for “the difficult work of transforming the public understanding of domestic work: highlighting the labor struggle while demonstrating the dignity and love inherent in the work itself,” she writes.

The household workers donated ordinary items like a pill box and foreclosure documents “that ask a visitor to empathize with some of life’s harshest realities,” Radke writes. They labeled the items with personal stories they wrote in a workshop led by the nonprofit Young Chicago Authors.

“For the museum, this exhibit has been an incredible success. Visitors see themselves in the history. A group of au pairs visited and wrote afterwards to describe how the exhibit influenced them,” Radke says.

“Unfinished Business: 21st Century Home Economics” will be on view through 2013. Museum educators lead tours of the exhibit, and domestic workers who contributed to the exhibit plan to lead a tour in late summer, Radke said.

“There will be several programs this fall related to the exhibit in conjunction with Re-Thinking Soup,” Radke said, referring to the museum’s luncheon discussion series.

The museum, 800 S. Halsted St., is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free. For information, call 312-413-5353.

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