When I go to a museum, I like to read every piece of available text. While I can appreciate some objects from a purely aesthetic point of view, my background as a historian always leads me to think about context. Because of this tendency, I had a little bit of a problem the first time I visited Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum. In 2015, I was living in Brooklyn temporarily and visited the museum for the first time during one of its First Saturday event. The museum was packed. There was a line wrapping down the hall to get into the Dinner Party, and once inside, trying to accommodate everyone did not leave much time look at each individual table setting for long. It certainly wasn’t the best time to try to read through the packet of accompanying information (there is no wall text in the Dinner Party). While I still really enjoyed seeing the piece, I did not get much of the context I was interested in.
For visitors like me who want to read about the piece, The Brooklyn Museum has created a webpage dedicated to exploring every part of this monumental work of art. The Dinner Party is an elaborate representation of women in history composed of a triangular table set with thirty-nine place settings, each dedicated to a specific woman. The table is propped up on a tile “Heritage Floor” inscribed with the names of 999 historical and mythological women. With this many people represented, there is a lot of historical context that visitors may be interested in.
The museum’s webpage provides this historical context and allows visitors to learn more about Chicago’s process of creating the piece. I was particularly interested in the section devoted to each of the thirty-nine place settings. First, it makes the timeline of the Dinner Party readily apparent. While I understood visiting the piece that it progressed from prehistory through the twentieth century, it tells you more about the history Chicago is grappling with to see her periodization: Prehistory to Classical Rome, Christianity to the Reformation, and American Revolution to the Women’s Revolution. Underneath these headings are images of each of the plates. Clicking on a plate brings you to a page with images of each component of the table setting, a biography of the woman represented, an analysis of the imagery used in the table setting, a list of related women from the “Heritage Floor,” and primary and secondary sources on the figure. Here is more background information than you could possibly get from any accompanying text in the museum! The connection to women listed on the “Heritage Floor” is particularly insightful. This is an easy part of the Dinner Party to overlook when you see the piece in person, and many of the names you may not be able to make out. Connecting the larger figures to these names reinforces Chicago’s idea that these women are the foundation for women’s history.
Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party has been subject to criticism from the time it was first exhibited in 1979. Then, conservative critics denounced its vaginal imagery. More recent critics have seen in it the limitations of second-wave feminism; it is largely Euro-centric and can be seen as essentializing, tying womanhood to genitalia. When I visited again in the summer of 2019, the museum was also showing an exhibit on LGBTQ art after Stonewall. It was hard not to think of these criticisms in comparison. That being said, the Dinner Party is a testament to previous generations of feminists and the work of even developing a recognized field of women’s history.
The Brooklyn Museum’s digital companion to the Dinner Party shows how online projects can be used to supplement, not supplant, the in-person experience. The webpage can never convey the scale of the work or how all the components work together. However, it can provide you with historical context and help you make connections between the party’s many women. You can take your own deep dive into the Dinner Party here.