Country Fair to Culinary Olympics


of an Exhibition

by Matt Kirchman

Published on February 05, 2009, Modified on February 10, 2009

  • Description:

    Roger Ebert eat your heart out! And while you’re at it, enjoy some fried dough and prize-winning pickles!

    In November, I sat on a panel to offer critical analysis of the latest exhibition offered by the Johnson and Wales University Museum of Culinary Art located in Providence, Rhode Island. The criticism was offered as part of an off-site program during the annual conference of the New England Museum Association (NEMA). My observations and insights, presented to 60 or so conference delegates (including the museum director and his staff of 3) served as the inspiration for this written review.

    The overarching theme of Country Fair to Culinary Olympics is food competitions. It is staged in two adjoining galleries, each employing one aspect of the museum’s strengths: first, its extensive collections, and second, its dovetailing with the university curriculum, which happens to include participation in real food competitions hosted around the world.

    1. The first half of the exhibition, Country Fair…, showcases the museum’s collections of food-related items of nostalgia like an outdoor popcorn machine, blue ribbons from country fair food entries, fairground props, and recently acquired mason jars full of pickles, piccalilli, and peaches in heavy syrup. Central to the exhibit, a working Skee-ball arcade game invites play and provides authentic visual and aural ambience, while nearby, a fully modeled demonstration canning kitchen (ca 1956) creates a sense of immersion. There is something for everyone: kids will find cartoon-inspired tabletop puzzles; gardeners and foodies will sample the food displays with delight; and techies will undoubtedly be drawn to the touch-screen programs ripe with historic footage of country fairs, curiosities, and competitions. The idea of competition rings as loud as the See-ball game with entertaining stories of frying pan tossing contests, costume design parades, and the weighing-in of super vegetables like 800-pound pumpkins. The graphic look and feel is inspired by the hawking signage of a midway, with appropriately loud and competing headlines all inviting visitors to “Step right up folks…”

    2. The second half of the exhibition,…to Culinary Olympics, highlights the Johnson and Wales students’ participation in international food competitions, specifically in bread and cake categories where the entries are highly decorative and possess a relatively long shelf life making them fit for display. This portion of the exhibition featured a sit-down theater in which one could watch the energy of international competition (think: Hell’s Kitchen or Iron Chef) and displays of numerous confections and breadstuffs, meticulously arranged and balanced behind glass. Items on display approach the realm of sculpture. The ambience in this section of the exhibit is one of “feast your eyes… but please don’t touch,” and graphics resemble formal invitations and menus.

    If the above descriptions sound a bit like a strange pairing, there’s a reason for that. One gallery literally collides into the other with very little sense of relatedness or transition. The visual and experiential design of each of the two exhibits is quite independent of the other and the continuity of the exhibition suffers. I interpreted the title, “Country Fair to Culinary Olympics” as a pathway or a journey and I just couldn’t keep a hold of the handrail.

    Please note that while most delegates also found the exhibition to be disjointed, we unanimously agreed that each portion of the exhibition was savory in its own right and thought that most visitors would find the exhibition very satisfying. As you can see, the use of food metaphors (exhibitions are meals; museums are restaurants) was irresistible to me as a critic on that November day, and the analogy of the preparation and presentation of the exhibition to the service of food was inspiring then as it is now. Therefore, and at the certain risk of over-salting the idea, I have evoked the palate of a food critic and have prepared the following light menu of “food for thought:”

    1. The food is the restaurant is the food.
    A restaurant’s name, interior design, table service and menu are all a part of its brand, signaling the quality of the food, the price you’d expect to pay, even the level at which you should hold your voice while dining. As a sensual, physical medium, exhibition is, similarly, an outward expressive of the institution’s mission, and plays a vital role in branding the institution.

    2. Season to taste.
    We all have different tastes at any given time. Museums must offer many choices within a single visit – large experiences and small ones, bright ones and dark ones, physical and emotional ones, object-based and idea-based. Whoever said it was right: variety is truly a spice.

    3. It’s OK to eat dessert first.
    Objects, scenics, and artifacts–real things–are automatically attractive and inviting, and should be offered at the top of the communication hierarchy.
    Who wouldn’t pass by a “advance organizer” graphic in order to see a four-foot-tall cake? We should continually ask ourselves: “how can objects lead us to ideas?” as much as “what can we put on display that illustrates this point?”

    4. A celebrity chef never hurts.
    We love brushes with fame. People are drawn to the famous. Exhibits that contain “est” words (rarest, largest, best, most…) are popular. Seeing the “one and only” is good-eatin!’

    5. “…tastes like chicken.”
    Familiar context is a powerful introduction to new ideas.
    The county fair made a great introduction to international culinary competition.

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