In recent months, news outlets have reported that Paula Deen, Southern queen of heavy eating, has Type 2 diabetes; “pink slime,” though no longer in McDonald’s burgers, might soon be in your child’s school lunch; and in other culinary crimes, Taco Bell and Doritos have teamed up on the Locos Taco, taking fast food to a new level of awful. With these headlines, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that obesity and food-related illnesses continue to be serious problems in the United States. What is remarkable, however, is that museums across the country are trying to help.
Let’s Move! Museums & Gardens, part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s larger Lets Move! campaign, encourages cultural institutions to join the fight against childhood obesity. Over 500 art museums, sculpture and botanic gardens, historic houses, and science centers have taken up her charge. Last October, representatives of these institutions came together for the one-day conference Feeding the Spirit: Museums, Food, and Community, organized by the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM), a branch of the American Association of Museums. In February, CFM offered a webinar of the same title, showing recorded presentations by the culinary historian Jessica B. Harris; Growing Power outreach coordinator and artist Erika Allen; Batali/Bastianich Hospitality Group’s food safety and sustainability director Elizabeth Meltz; and Yale School of Public Health professor Jeannette Ickovics, co-organizer of Big Food: Health, Culture and the Evolution of Eating, currently on view at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
As I watched the webinar, listening to these speakers share startling (though commonly repeated) statistics and make compelling arguments for food-related programming in museums, I kept coming back to the same question, which others also asked in the live chat: Do museums have a responsibility to raise issues about food? Among other things, I couldn’t help but think that not so long ago museums were suffering the recession. Shrunken budgets and endowments led them to trim exhibition schedules, public programs, and staff. Post-recession, many museums are still experiencing financial woes. All these things considered, our eating habits and body fat measurements can seem terribly trivial. Yet the CFM is making a strong case for exploring food in museums now.
In The Feeding the Spirit Cookbook, a how-to manual of sorts, founding director Elizabeth Merritt writes:
“America is immersed in a reexamination of its relationship to food. The collective issues of sustainability—human and environmental health, food equity and social cohesion—pose some of the greatest challenges facing the U.S. in coming decades … As communities increasingly self-sort by politics, race, culture and income, food is one of the deeply human ways we come together and explore commonalities … Museums are embracing the fact that food strongly influences where and how we spend our time. Research on participation in the arts shows that while people are becoming less likely to partake of ‘high culture,’ they increasingly attend multi-faceted cultural events that include food in the mix.”
Undeniably, food is having a moment in contemporary art and popular culture. Although the subject has always been relevant to art. You might think of food as everyone’s daily medium. The challenge for museums is to present it in interesting ways, creating exhibitions or programs that not only engage audiences but also fit within their mission.
At the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, where food and human health fit within their larger objectives, the organizers were still challenged when planning for Big Food. Deputy director Jane Pickering has said that they had to contemplate, “How [to] design the exhibit so the average person says to himself, ‘I should really go see that.’” In addition to a “food corridor” that greets visitors with a display of the average American’s annul consumption, Big Food includes specimens of body organs, kid-friendly interactives, and an IKEA-furnished diorama of a teenage boy’s bedroom, complete with a bag of potato chips. You’re not likely to find an installation like this at the Andy Warhol Museum – another participant of Let’s Move! Museums and Gardens – and frankly, I’m glad about that. But Warhol’s work about mass production and processed foods (largely thought to be a cause of the obesity epidemic) is apropos to this discussion. His silkscreen prints of foodstuffs and various cookbook projects could be the start of a rich exhibition.
For The Warhol Museum, connecting food issues to the institution’s overall identity is a no-brainer. Other participants of Let’s Move! Museums and Gardens–such as the Barnes Foundation, Bass Museum of Art, Cincinnati Art Museum, and Phillips Collection–will have a harder time. Matters of food and health couldn’t seem further from some of their core values. However, it’s through their education departments, where doors are usually open to outside-the-box ideas, that they might find or create opportunities. As Jessica Harris pointed out in her presentation, innovative food-related programs are taking place at museums across the country. Increasingly, their food service departments are collaborating with local and celebrity chefs to prepare special menus, educators are presenting vistors with food tours and healthy cooking demonstrations, and artists are teaching youth how to grow food and eat well. Tattfoo Tan’s Nature Matching System comes to mind as an exceptionally good example of the latter (see image above).
Getting back to my earlier question, while I don’t believe food and health issues are the responsibility of museums, I do believe that they are in a position to help create change. According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 78 million adults and 12.5 million children and adolescents in the United States are obese. That’s roughly five times the annual number of visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, Museum of Modern Art, DeYoung Museum, and Art Institute of Chicago combined. Now, I can’t ignore the socio-economic factors at play when we talk about who is accessing these museums; these are not the groups most afflicted by obesity. Still, it’s probably safe to assume that the epidemic directly and indirectly impacts a vast number of U.S. museum-goers. So maybe the better question to ask is why more museums don’t confront us about what we eat? From the looks of things, the dialogue is needed.
Big Food runs through December 2 at Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. The Feeding the Spirit Cookbook is available here.