How to use Food to Create Relevance in Museums

Food is an important necessity people need to survive, and by creating an exhibit or program based on the narrative of food history museums create examples of how people can understand relevance in museums. This week there was a webinar the American Association of State and Local History hosted called Interpreting Food at Museums and Historic Sites, which provided introduction to strategies for using food and food history to develop interpretation with depth and significance, and will make relevant connections to contemporary issues and visitor interests. This webinar inspired me to write about my own experiences when I collaborated with my classmates and Connecticut Historical Society on the exhibit Cooking by the Book: Amelia Simmons to Martha Stewart. Also, I will discuss how the study of food history is continued to be discussed since I first approached the subject during graduate school.

During my second semester of my first year of graduate school, I took a course on Museum Interpretation in which the major assignment was creating an exhibit at Connecticut Historical Society using food as the theme. My classmates and I were introduced to the project at the beginning of the semester, and my professor assigned books to provide background information on food history; one of the books was Warren Belasco’s Food: The Key Concepts (Bloomsbury Academic, 2008) which served as an introduction to the study of food studies and an essential overview to the increasingly critical field of enquiry. Other books assigned were about food and food preparation in different centuries in America.

In my records, I also found my notes on the justification of creating an exhibit based on food for Connecticut Historical Society. They argue that food is a part of history that individuals can identify with as being universally relevant. According to my notes, food is an essential part of life for everyone needs food to survive, and more than that food can unite families and larger communities; food can also conjure powerful memories for individuals whether it is a yearly holiday meal tradition or cooking in the kitchen with a relative. My justification notes also stated that the exhibit will provoke questions about the differences in food history as it relates to class and gender within Connecticut’s social structure as well as challenging visitors to think about their own personal experiences with food. This is what my teammates and I had in mind when we created the original proposal presented to the committee at Connecticut Historical Society.

To create the proposal, in addition to figuring out a way to present food history in Connecticut, we also picked out objects that represented food history and our idea for the exhibit. We originally came up with an idea that was like the Upstairs/Downstairs concept when creating the Connecticut food narrative. Then we included the idea of telling Connecticut food history throughout time from the 18th century to current period. We then looked through Connecticut Historical Society’s collections that we felt best represented the narrative we believed will be presented in the exhibit. For instance, I oversaw picking out items from the eighteenth century and one of the pieces I chose to include in our proposal was a ceramic bowl that was made and used between 1730 and 1770.

After selecting our items for the proposal, we also had to figure out how to include an interactive segment in our exhibit to allow visitors to engage with the historical narrative. A couple of ideas we had include a tea etiquette practice in which a table and chairs are set up with a container of all the necessary items for the tea setting (photocopies of the directions for a Victorian tea setting would be provided and visitors would then attempt to properly set the table for tea based on the directions). The second idea we came up with was we would provide reproductions of community cookbooks from the Connecticut Historical Society’s collections for the visitors to look through.

When our class had the opportunity to present our proposals, my teammates and I presented our idea to a committee of Connecticut Historical Society staff members to determine which group’s exhibit idea they will move forward with. Each member of my group presented two different sections of our exhibit idea, and I presented the very first section when visitors enter the exhibit space as well as the interactive elements section to the committee. The first section was called “Cooking for a New Nation” which would feature Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery (which was the first cookbook published in America). The book would have been used as a representation of how women cooked in eighteenth century America and the narrative would have described the women’s and servants’ roles in the kitchen during this period; when discussing these roles, the narrative would also discuss the separation between servants and household was emerging in the eighteenth century as well as the transition from colonies to a new nation. Then I described the objects that would be selected for display in this section. After the rest of the sections were presented, I introduced the interactive element for the exhibit we brainstormed for the proposal.

Some time passes, and our professor announced that the committee decided to choose our group’s idea for the exhibit with some suggested changes. The exhibit was changed to focus more on the time line of cookbooks published in the United States and discuss food history in America (especially Connecticut) in each century beginning with Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery and ending with Martha Stewart’s cookbooks. It was named Cooking by the Book: Amelia Simmons to Martha Stewart and we proceeded with selecting the objects and collaborating with the University of Hartford art design students to design the exhibit labels and space. My group oversaw the interactive element of the exhibit; the interactive element was changed to providing copies of various recipes that came from the cookbooks displayed in the exhibit, and presented the opportunity for visitors to write their own recipes and place them in a box. We each took a cookbook and selected the recipes we would be interested in using then narrowed down the options to a few of them. Cooking by the Book: Amelia Simmons to Martha Stewart eventually opened in January 2013, and it ran from January 18, 2013 to April 13, 2013.

Since then I did not see much of the history of food presented in a museum setting until I came across Michelle Moon’s Interpreting Food in Museums and Historic Sites which was published by the American Association of State and Local History in 2015, and the basis of this past week’s American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) webinar. Moon’s book argued that museums and historic sites have an opportunity to draw new audiences and infuse new meaning into their food presentations, and food deserves a central place in historic interpretation. Her book provides the framework for understanding big ideas in food history, suggesting best practices for linking objects, exhibits and demonstrations with the larger story of change in food production as well as consumption over the past two centuries. She also argues that food tells a story in which visitors can see themselves, and explore their own relationships to food.

I also came across Linda Norris’ blog post “Building a Learning Culture: Food Included” on her blog The Uncatalogued Museum which discussed her experience working with the board and staff at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota on creative practice in context of interpretive planning. The American Swedish Institute decided to include stories of all immigrants not only Swedish immigrant stories. To assist with creative practice including in interpretive planning, there are lessons that each institution needs to learn to connect with each other and with their communities. Norris introduced lessons from this experience including good ideas come from everywhere so it is important to cast a wide net to gain knowledge, and making time to think together is especially important.

Also, it is important be open to collaborate with people in the community to develop new collaborations and deepen other partnerships. If the American Swedish Institute did not learn that lesson, then they would not have learned about a restaurant in their community that shows appreciation for Bollywood dance and shows customers how to perform them. She also talked about the experience influencing the staff to schedule regular fika, or Swedish coffee break, with baked goods to spend some time from a busy day and connect with each other. For more information about her experience, the link to her blog can be found here: http://uncatalogedmuseum.blogspot.com/2017/02/building-learning-culture-food-included.html.

These previous examples show how food presentations in the museum field has evolved in the past few years. By sharing my previous experience on food presentation and the most current experiences on food and culture, I provide some examples of how visitors can make connections to their own memories related to food. I will soon be attending a New York City Museum Educators Roundtable (NYCMER) program called Lessons in Equity from Culturally-Specific Institutions: Beyond the “Target Program” at the Museum of Chinese in America on creating a diverse environment in the museum. The program will also include a closer look at the special exhibition Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America. When I heard about this program the first time, it reminded me of the many family meals I have had during my childhood and in my adulthood trying various Chinese food dishes. I will continue the discussion on food history and how individuals can to share my experiences after I attend this program.

Do you think your museum or institution would be able to include food history in its exhibits or programs? What is your most powerful memory that comes to mind when you think of food? Have you attended a program or exhibit that discusses food history or a subject related to food?

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