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How Food Earned Its Place in American Museums

Meet the curators, hobbyists, and hot dog enthusiasts placing food in museum spaces.

Courtesy Chicago Foodseum

Food has become the centerfold of the 21st century. Once simply a (hopefully delicious) way to keep the body alive, the way we nourish ourselves has intersected with politics, culture, tradition, history, and art. Chefs have been fairy-godmothered from faceless white hats sweating over a pile of onions into celebrities. Molecular gastronomers tinker on the edge of art and science to further separate food from a simple way to consume calories. Food is now a source of wonder.

American culture's new celebration of food has put it in the same realm as art, music, science, and technology to such an extent that it's now getting its own museum — a lot of museums.

A global desire for food museums seems to have sprung up almost overnight.

In the last five years, museums dedicated to the wider world of food have gotten underway in Brooklyn, Prague, London, and Chicago, to name a few. For the most part, they either have or are working toward a brick-and-mortar location where they will host interactive exhibits (even if it's just providing something for guests to smell and taste) as well as outside events to further their educational outreach. While art collections often grew in wealthy hands for generations before winding up in a museum, a global desire for food museums seems to have sprung up almost overnight.

Though an exhibit about flavor (currently hosted by Brooklyn's Museum of Food and Drink) or one centered on hot dogs (at the Chicago Foodseum) may not seem terribly serious, food museums have set out to tie everyday products into a larger story of history and culture. But the question is: How did food grow from a set of recipes and traditions (perhaps with some politics thrown in) into something so many people feel the need to catalogue and exhibit?

Photo: Facebook

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Photo: SoFAB Institute/Facebook

The meaning and use of museums

"The history of museums is the history of colonialism," says museologist and NYU professor Aimee VonBokel. Traditionally museums have been a place to collect works from artists or artifacts from foreign lands. "Any museum opening is an expression of a certain kind of power or dominance over cultures," VonBokel adds. The first museum dates back thousands of years, but looked very different from a museum today. These early museums were mostly private collections of ancient artifacts housed in royal or religious buildings — not meant for public or educational use. It wasn't until the development of England's Ashmolean Museum in the 1600s that museums were opened to the public.

For the most part, public museums spread along with the fall of royalty. Over time, museums have become a form of reciprocity between citizens and their governmentsViews of education have also shaped the modern museum. Gilded Age museums were grand structures, shrines to knowledge where the purpose was to go and soak up information without much guidance, VonBokel explains. "Over time we've learned that lecturing doesn't work as well." As a result, museums have tried to change themselves from "arbiters of high culture" and become "welcoming forums" instead. The barrier to entry is much lower when museums are sites for community engagement rather than shrines to culture. And what could be more accessible and welcoming than food?

"Any museum opening is an expression of a certain kind of power or dominance over cultures."

Since the beginning, museums have been a display for the objects we deemed of greatest importance — either humanity's greatest hits or artifacts symbolizing the growth of knowledge. "Taste is one of the ways we distinguish ourselves," VonBokel says. Cuisine has now entered the canon of cultural capital.

"When you think about what museums do — they inspire people to make connections between things they didn't see before," says Peter Kim, executive director of MOFAD. Unlike other fields, Kim believes that everyone is a food expert to some degree. "Even if you're 10 years old, you've had 10 years of experience dealing with food." Of course, just because you like macaroni and cheese doesn't mean you know anything about the history of pasta, the dairy industry, or artificial flavors, and coloring. That's where the food museum comes in. Kim's goal is to take each visitor on a "learning adventure to see all of these other connections they might not have thought of before." Anyone can repeat what someone else said, but a personal link allows people the chance to think for themselves.

Both Chicago's Foodseum and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans have used regional history or foods as a way to organize the more general history and culture of food. The Foodseum is currently exhibiting a pop-up on hot dogs. Its executive director, Kyle Joseph, describes it as a combination history lesson about the Chicago meat industry, a peek into global culture (with information on 23 "encased meats" from around the world), and a children's museum (with a hands-on kitchen where visitors can experiment).

"We wanted to talk about the south because it gave us a geographic area we could put our arms around," says SoFAB president, Liz Williams, of the museum's development. The region's cuisine has been heavily influenced by immigrants — both voluntary and not — from many different eras and cultures. "We are looking at the world through the eyes of the south," Williams explains.

She believes the newness of food museums gives them a certain cachet. It's hard to know what to expect from a food museum, which means people may not have decided that it's somehow not for them. "Everyone knows what an art museum is because it's everywhere," Williams says. "But not everyone wants to go because it requires a certain amount of appreciation, understanding, knowledge." People understand food: Once you get the visitors in the door, food is a subject with something for everyone.

Top: The pop culture gallery at the World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta; photo: courtesy Coca-Cola. Bottom: Scenes from the Spam Museum; photos: rayb777/Flickr

So what do you put inside a food museum?

Museums, as constructed "cultural institutions," have a magical (and sometimes problematic) property that allows them to put an object on display and irrevocably transform it into "art." And unlike visual art or natural history, food is a consumer product, too. With so few of these major food museums in existence (even if they are growing in number), what each one exhibits and how they organize or narrate it could have a large impact on how people view food. This is true for any museum, though the impact of thinking Van Gogh is better than an unknown painter is smaller than permanently altering someone's eating habits. An exhibit glorifying food science and packaged food inventions like Lunchables or Fruit Loops would teach very different lessons about what society values than a museum that looked at small farms or water-saving hydroponic growing systems.

Mini-food museums were often created as a late-20th-century version of the roadside attraction.

Specialized food museums, which focused on food as a commodity as much as (if not more than) food as culture, are not new. Mini-museums were often created as a late-20th-century version of the roadside attraction. How to get people to your Philadelphia pizzeria? House it next to a Guinness World Records-certified "world's largest collection of pizza memorabilia." Want an excuse to build a replica of a Japanese street circa 1950? Add on a series of ramen shops, a little context, and a race car track. One-man museums like the beer can museum or now-defunct banana club are nicely exhibited, public repositories of personal collections run amok.

The food and beverage industry has also had a big hand in developing mini-museums (even though some of them are quite large). Coca-Cola, Dole, Dr. Pepper, Hershey's, SPAM, and many others all have museums devoted to the company's history and product line. A major Korean company has a kimchi museum. Belgians have a museum of fries. Even Idaho potatoes have a museum.

Most of these mini-museums are marketing first, education second. While the new food museum may have loftier goals, it's not without underlying motivations of its own. The Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, located in Ottawa, is one of many national museums around the world focused on the history and how-to's of farming. While the museum itself has been around for 30 years, it was recently retitled to include "food." It also developed a host of new programming "to highlight the link between agriculture and the food, fibers, and fuel people use every day," says director Kerry-Leigh Burchill. The change has had a big impact on the museum's demographics, as Lee notes "the food movement hasn't hurt." In the past, visitors were mostly families or teachers with groups of young children. "Now, we are seeing more hipster 20-somethings, adults of every age, and seniors coming on their own," says Burchill — a first in the museum's history.

The fact that the museum had to make the link between food and farming more explicit to draw visitors also shows why food museums are so necessary. Somehow it wasn't apparent that a museum about farming would be a museum about eating, too. "One of the biggest challenges is that people think museums only celebrate the past," explains Burchill. "We want people to understand contemporary agriculture and the future of agriculture."

While visitors do get general knowledge on food and agriculture from the museum's exhibits, the real reason why the federal government in Canada (and many other countries) funds a program like this is because they need more farmers. "From 30 percent of the population directly related to farming, we're now under three percent," says Burchill, adding, "We want to inspire not just future farmers but entrepreneurs and agronomists and food scientists."

It's a noble goal but also a great example of why designing a food museum shouldn't be taken lightly. "We feel an immense ethical burden to be a credible and objective source of information," Kim says of MOFAD. "Our subject matter has a direct effect on people's health and the environment... and it's a place where there is an enormous amount of misinformation."

"Our subject matter has a direct effect on people’s health and the environment... and it’s a place where there is an enormous amount of misinformation."

Though MOFAD is currently sponsored by a number of businesses, it turned down funding by food companies to maintain both autonomy and its new reputation. The Foodseum, on the other hand, does accept sponsors, "but we control the editorial piece," Joseph insists. "We do look for opportunities for them to give out samples or products." Because the Foodseum's goal is to get people to start asking questions about what they're eating, they feel that if their job has been done correctly, people will come to their own conclusions regardless of who sponsored an exhibit. "We don't ignore those brands," Joseph adds. "They're part of the food process, like it or not."

Financial backing aside, the act of choosing what to exhibit and how to explain it can cause controversy. MOFAD's first exhibit in its new brick-and-mortar location is on the flavor industry. "Doing anything the right way is doing things the hard way, and every word in this exhibition coming out has been agonized and argued over," says Kim. The museum wanted to make sure it wasn't leaning too far in either direction and had consultants from "diverse backgrounds" advise them throughout the process. But eventually MOFAD had to make a decision. As Kim points out, "You have to say something." It may be impossible for these new food museums to avoid ruffling feathers, for either feeling too partisan or objective to the point of bland.

But the age of the food museum is clearly upon us. Williams remembers that in SoFAB's early days, people often stumbled in out of curiosity but without really knowing what they were getting into. "You had those early hardcore foodies and other culture-vulture people who wanted a unique attraction in New Orleans." Today people visit because they like food or like cocktails and want to see what SoFAB has on display. Williams can't wait to see more food museums open up. "It only helps all of us in this business if more people know what a food museum is," she says.

* Disclosure: Eater's parent company Vox Media is one of the founding sponsors of the Museum of Food and Drink.