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Museums Lure A New Generation Of Patrons Through Their Stomachs

Ancient beer? Indigenous foods? A mouthful of smog? It sure beats a lousy diorama.

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In 2004, archeologist Ryan Williams was on an expedition in the Andes when his group made an amazing discovery: a brewery built at an almost sacred stature on a mountaintop. Operated by the Wari people from around A.D. 600 to around A.D. 1500, it was used to brew a maize and pepper berry beer known as chicha—the ancient equivalent of Bud Light Straw-Ber-Ritas—with an ABV approaching 10%. But it wasn’t savored; it was chugged. Williams’s team discovered drinking mugs, half a gallon in size. In this mountain beer hall, 50 to 100 local lords would attend a boozy feast lasting a few days, and each person would be responsible for drinking as many as five gallons apiece. This location was just one link in a whole chain of breweries built in South America that allowed the Wari people to control and unite 900 linear miles of disparate tribes for hundreds of years.

It’s a great story, and also, a pretty decent beer, which you can taste at the Field Museum of Natural History. Does drinking 1,400-year-old beer at a museum sound a little crazy? Maybe. But it's also a perfect example of how museums are embracing food and drink to lure young patrons.

At many museums—including the Field Museum—revenue is down, and of those who are visiting, young people are poorly represented. Museum members are growing older, but there’s hope: Millennials love experiences. And they love food.

According to research by Reach Advisors, which polled 7,500 culturally involved people in the Atlanta area back in 2011, the "Super Foodie" is the perfect demographic for museums to tap. They’re curious. They’re loyal. They love to cook and eat authentic foods. And they’re often under 40.

"Their strong interest in food does not get checked at the door when they visit museums," wrote Reach senior consultant Susie Wilkening. "And Super Foodies are attuned to opportunities to learn about food, where it comes from, and how it reflects different cultures and the past."

It shouldn’t be surprising. A whole generation has come of age whilst suckling the philosophies of Anthony Bourdain and Michael Pollan. This isn't just a flock of sheep grazing on the closest taco truck; these are consumers so involved in food and culture that they’re founding new food museums of their own. The challenge is to translate the history of food into experiences that both work within and push the boundaries of a museum.

Winning New Fans And New Curators, Through Their Stomach

Peter Kim is the executive director of Brooklyn’s Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD). At MOFAD, the first two exhibitions have examined our relationship with processed food. Curators originally built a puff gun—the same grain-fluffing technology used by the fathers of the modern cereal industry—for people to experience the miraculous mechanical transition of a grain to a goodie. More recently, they debuted an exhibit on mass-produced flavoring. Visitors can smell their way through an exhibit to learn how the food industry has isolated one tiny component of a real vanilla bean, and in doing so, defined our relatively limited perception of what vanilla is.

This sort of storytelling may be groundbreaking in the museum world, but it’s only natural to Kim.

"You can call me biased, but you can really explain most of human history through food. And when people talk about their own cultural identities, a lot of it can be explained through food as well," Kim says. "When I think of what makes me Korean-American, one of the first things I think about is the food I grew up eating. It’s only natural we’d look at food as being a primary lens to look through to examine the world."

Similarly, Cathrine Kramer and Zackery Denfeld cofounded the Center for Genomic Gastronomy. They’re a roaming food research and art hybrid that has appeared at the V&A in London and WHO in Geneva. The pair is also opening a new exhibition space in the Science Gallery, Dublin. And their ideas are wild. They have, for instance, served guests smog (technically, they’re whipped eggs, but whipped eggs filled with 90% polluted air are really just a delivery mechanism for smog). Their Community Meat Lab is a provocation that suggests we donate our blood to a communal pool, with which we can grow ethical meat. And with Glowing Sushi, they visualized GMO consumption, by serving up modified, glowing sushi rolls.

"We are always looking at the human food system through the lens of biology, ecology, and the life sciences," Denfeld says. "Where possible we like to assemble actual ingredients and organisms for people to interact with. Actually touching, tasting, smelling, and putting food in your body is a much deeper and more direct way to think about food controversies and the future of food."

Unlike a museum diorama or figurine, food isn’t just a representation or abstraction of a piece of information. It often is the information. In fact, Denfeld says that sometimes "people freak out" because food, as an exhibit, is so tied to reality. He recounts a conversation he had a few years back: "My throat hurts." "Yes, you just ate Smog." "Oh, I thought you were abstract artists." "No, we are realists." "Cool."

Museums Let You Ingest History

Food museums are only part of the story. Traditional museums are turning toward food and drink as a new way to educate people on history, too.

"Food is fundamentally human," says Elizabeth Merritt, director of the American Alliance of Museums' Center for the Future of Museums. "And as soon as they dig into it, many museums find there are culinary ways to explore their mission." In fact, food might be the ultimate gateway to experience design. It's multisensory by nature, tantalizing our eyes, our ears, our noses, and our mouths with equal success. While most museum artifacts are protected behind ropes and glass, you can literally ingest history when it's packaged as food.

At the Portland Museum of Art, curators have offered beer pairings with artworks. While at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one exhibit went so far as to serve beverages out of the very ceramics on display. The Thai performance artist Rirkrit Tiravanija has even infiltrated institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he’ll cook up smoky curries right inside a sensitive exhibit space. "It’s transgressive for a number of reasons" Merritt says, but cooking also serves as a conduit to pull someone through the art, or to consider an exhibit through a different, experiential, or even social lens.

Cafeterias Are An Extension Of The Museum

The most obvious way for food to make its way inside museums is not through the exhibits themselves, but to essentially bring the exhibit inside a museum’s existing cafeteria. For decades, the museum cafe has been an afterthought. While a necessity for visitors who need refreshment during a long day of museum-going, cafes don’t generate much revenue. So it’s only more recently that museum curators are scrutinizing their own cafes, curious if the food being served lines up with the message of the museum itself. If a nonprofit’s goal is to educate kids on healthy eating, for instance, it’s not great if the dining area is all pizza and cheeseburgers.

At the National Museum of the American Indian, the Mitsitam Cafe is pioneering the cafeteria as an exhibit space. It serves authentic dishes from various American Indian tribes: bison, hominy, elk, fry bread, and buckwheat. The cafe has won a number of awards, and tourists love it. I mean, when’s the last time you’ve seen a Yelper critique a museum like this: "The seasoned fries were super Hannah Montana, they needed to be a lot more Beyoncé."

So Is Historical Food The Next Big Foodie Pilgrimage?

It’s enough to make you wonder, if foodies really do love history so much, why doesn’t the food and beverage industry respond with more historic foods? In fact, they sometimes do. Dogfish Head has featured a line of Ancient Ales, developed in conjunction with Patrick McGovern, the scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. It’s a partnership that funds McGovern’s research while offering the public a way to taste, say, the contents of a 2,700-year-old drinking vessel from the tomb of King Midas.

Meanwhile, Next—a restaurant launched by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas from Alinea fame—originally marketed its seasonal menus as a way to taste both history and the future. The original menu depicted Paris 1906, and required the kitchen to acquire an antique duck press, which squeezes out the blood of the bird to create a murky, rich au jus for that was en vogue at the time of caneton Rouennais à la presse. Since, Next has recreated menus from El Bulli and Trio (the latter of which was Achatz’s original solo restaurant), but most menus have not been pegged to a place and time, nor will they be.

When I asked Kokonas why isn’t Next serving up more historical meals, he wrote, "The answer is very simple—there aren't that many iconic moments in culinary history that still resonate with diners." He did note that Next will be featuring a historic Thomas Keller menu later this year. "But, what else is there? What time period has great food and is *known* to have had great food. Paris 1906 conjures images immediately, and the food was great. Not a lot else that also doesn't get into political issues—colonial India, for example, has great food. But is a touchy subject."

Touchy subjects, of course, are commonplace for museums. History is fraught with controversy, and we go to museums to experience it, not avoid it. In this sense, maybe museums are the natural place for us to be consuming historic foods. We’re captive audiences with open minds and open mouths. Just be careful around the art after chugging the chicha.

Slideshow Credits: 01 / MOFAD; 02 / The Center for Genomic Gastronomy; 03 / Next Restaurant;

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