Our Global Kitchen:Food Nature Culture
of an Exhibit
by Karen Mccree
Published on December 29, 2012
Museum: American Museum of American History
Visit Date: December, 2012
Exhibit Review: Our Global Kitchen: Food Nature and Culture – AMNH
I selected the American Museum of Natural History’s special exhibit Our Global Kitchen: Food Nature Culture because I wanted to review an exhibit that was different from my art museum environment. My pre conceived impressions of the natural history museum were based on my visits when I was a school student. I expected to be walking in high ceiling cavernous rooms supported by massive marble columns lit overhead with serviceable fluorescent flood lights. I expected the majority of the collections to be displayed in Plexiglas cases or dioramas augmented by occasional interactive kiosks and the rooms to be filled with the echo of footsteps and chatter. I also expected the Museum to have the familiar faint musty metallic smell of school and the zoo.
As I approached the Museum I was excited to see that the two massive Christmas trees outside the entrance were landscaped into the shape of two dancing dinosaurs covered with holiday lights. I appreciated this creative acknowledgement to the holiday season and its signal to visitors that the museum was a place of fun. Seeing the dancing dinosaurs made me very happy and excited to enter. I noticed that most of the crowd felt as I did.
The main floor was organized. This made entering and processing a pleasant experience. Every employee from the guard checking our bags and directing us to the admissions cue, to the floating ‘help’ person wearing an identifying card on a lanyard was courteous and professional. My companion was a bit upset about paying an additional $20 for the premium special exhibit but the conversation with the admission person about the exhibit relieved his discomfort.
Finding the Global Kitchen exhibit wasn’t as easy. We were told to go ‘upstairs’. As we walked around the second floor looking for signage to direct us I was pleased to find that the Museum didn’t smell like I remembered and the dioramas had evolved and were a bit more interesting and varied. I was also pleased to see so many ethnicities of visitors and ages in the museum. I noticed a sense of ownership that many of the visitors expressed and I was able to contrast their behavior with the patrons at my art museum. These people were more relaxed and expressive in their behavior. Their conversation level was louder and because of the larger structure of the space they were comfortable talking in medium size informal groups.
After asking a guard we were directed to a long hallway to The Global Kitchen exhibit entrance. It was dark. The young lady who scanned our special tickets apologized when she couldn’t see her scanner because her area was dark. While we were waiting to be scanned we walked to a lit wall area at the threshold of the exhibit and looked at a video screen which discussed the reasons for and purpose of the exhibit including a 30 sec sound bite from the curators and advisors. After being scanned we walked from the dark entrance to a small dark room surrounded by 5 large wall- size round video screens. Each video screen provided a rapid 3 minute montage exposition on the scope of what would be presented in the exhibit. Beginning with flashes of the word Welcome! in many languages it was followed by an assortment of images, words and statistics on the topic of food in the areas of science, agriculture, politics, civilization, history, economics and culture. Stimulated and intrigued we were ready for our journey.
Leaving this staging area, we walked through an entrance to a dark, small alcove and watched a 7-8 minute film on global agriculture and its impact on politics, the environment and the economy. The seats for the adults were benches and the children’s area near the front of the screen had chair- pods that were shaped like fruit and vegetables – strawberries , apples and yellow peppers. The film had subtitles ( I assume) in the event the area became crowded or noisy . In our peripheral view was a large well lit banner leading us to the next area, a walking observation and informational space which expanded on the topics presented in the film. There were physical examples of produce mounted on the walls in Plexiglas glass cases illustrating vertical gardens in Chile and square melons grown in Japan along with information on the history and science of crop diversity, irrigation and new trends in food modification. Included in this space was a functional not visually imaginative 30 foot curving wall walkway with statistics on origins of vegetables, historic food famines, climate change and its impact on creating new crop innovations. Other topics explored included ways to feed an aging population and new developments in urban agriculture . Questions were posed on the future of global agriculture and ways to end global hunger followed by an encouragement to go to the AMNH website for further information and involvement. My favorite part of this area was the Modern Market Display containing a world map with statistics on agricultural trade and transport. The facts were noteworthy and quirky and the graphics were imaginative ( ex: India grows 30% of the world’s banana population but exports only 1% sold only to Japan). At the end of the statistics walkway we were transported to an ancient Aztec market. This re-created environment complete with sound effects from a marketplace was what I expected to find at a natural history museum. It was effective as it was reassuring. This space provided a much needed area of engagement for children who were not able to or interested in reading the walkway signage. I observed many conversations between parents and children.
Following this ancient world and building on the theme of history and food was another informational walking area presenting historic solutions to keeping food fresh, explanations of fermentation, pickling, canning and the importance of microbes in yogurt; to answers about the evolution of the pizza and tomatoes in Italy; the cult and culture of chocolate in Central and South America and examples of today’s power foods. This walkway like the previous one was efficient and basic in its presentation with muted colors and text in traditional fonts. I assume that after the free form Aztec market experience it was necessary to present some more specific information. One part of this area that didn’t work was an illustration of the concept of food waste. Positioned at the end of the walk way in a corner was a large well lit 35 ft clear Plexiglas cube filled with boxes of processed food (cereal boxes and models of fresh food) with the signage “ 126 billion pounds of food is thrown out annually in the U.S.”. I suppose this was an attempt at a metaphorical example. There wasn’t any other information provided except a suggestion to check the Museum website for more information.
Strategically placed at occasional intervals in the walk way was an interactive tool that almost worked. Individual self service smelling pods provided a smell of specific foods like fennel, garlic, chocolate or ginger accompanied by signage designed to encourage conversations. What made these tools problematic was the height. The pods were a bit high for younger children to self sample. I watched a mother lift her child up and manipulate the pod.
The next area was about food and cooking today . Exiting the serviceable walk way was a large room resembling a modern laboratory with gray and white walls, modern high end designer overhead light fixtures and a concrete industrial floor. Inside the room was a glass enclosed brightly lit high tech test kitchen with an official panel on the wall listing Whole Foods as the sponsor. A small sign on the glass door of the kitchen said Please come in! Inside the test kitchen were two people dressed in white chefs uniforms preparing samples for tasting. This week’s sample food per the website (and the kitchen’s daily menu chalkboard) was gingerbread. Exhibit goers were handed samples of ginger cookies (from Whole Foods) and a cup of milk (soy upon request). The ‘chefs’ engaged the interested audience in a lively discussion about how certain foods evoke certain memories. The senior ‘chef’ was a professional kitchen manager from Whole Foods and her assistant was a AMNH employee. On the walls in the test kitchen were interactive displays and quizzes about the sense of taste and smell . The room was very noisy and festive with families talking to each other, taking the quizzes and eating gingerbread. On one wall was a 72” chalk board listing upcoming scheduled cooking activities in the kitchen for adults and children. Also listed were outreach programs for all ages including lectures from agricultural economists and local chefs with further information and reservations available on the Museum website.The walls on the large room outside the test kitchen contained the traditional history museum Plexiglas display cases with an encyclopedic range of interesting and unique cooking utensils and gadgets from history and today. Another display case contained an assortment of cookbooks and recipes from different cultures and periods in history. In the middle of the room was a large light-table with an interactive video installation preparing 4 different dishes. The signage listed the recipe ingredients first and then showed examples of cooking techniques such as “sweating” the onions, sautéing, the meat, poaching the egg, etc. This high tech installation appealed to a wide range of visitors of all ages. The large room and the test kitchen provided a much needed free form non linear release for many visitors. I noticed that the children were able to break away from their parents and manipulate the light table cooking installation by themselves, sample something in the test kitchen or have a conversation with their parent about something in the display case and run around a bit. I noticed that adults also enjoyed this ‘free play’ room. Turning the corner was one last historical food connection. In a very dark room lit with available light from chandeliers, ‘candlelight’ and simulated sunlight were 5 mini installations of historic interiors complete with period furniture, decorative accessories and appropriate color schemes. The signage invited visitors to look at a re-created meal from Ancient Rome, Revolutionary War United States, an18th Century Jane Austen tea party and a 13th Century Kubla Khan feast. In the middle of the room was a kiosk with the diets of famous people and their quotes about food from Mohandas Gandhi on being a vegetarian to what Michael Phelps ate in preparation for the Olympics –including his calorie count.
While we were in the dark room we heard some sounds and someone talking prompting us to walk around the corner to the final area alcove where we saw a short 7 minute video entitled Food, Faith & Festivals. We were happy to sit down and watch this. The seating was the same as the first video at the beginning of the exhibit but the area wasn’t large enough to comfortably accommodate the growing number of people finishing the exhibit and walking into the alcove. Many were standing in the back or trying to sit on the floor to watch. The film featured 4 families in the New York boroughs and their ethnic celebrations – Chinese New Year, U.S. Thanksgiving incorporating the food traditions of Peru(the mother) and Israel(the father) , A Hindu Ganesh festival in Queens, an East African holiday in Manhattan along with a montage of world festivals like Oktoberfest, in Munich. There were no subtitles for this film. Following the film we walked out to the well lit gift shop and bought a few things. We were in the exhibit about 2 ½ hours, about as long as a movie and more interesting.
ConclusionBeginning with a formal foundation and linear structure, the exhibit designers were smart enough to allow for periodic areas of free form activity and self direction in the larger rooms. I appreciated how the exhibit was paced. First a quiet film to identify and outline the information in the exhibit followed by a self propelled informational walk in the first open area, to the Aztec market, then back to another walk, this time with interactive self service pods leading to the second larger free play room with a high tech visual tool and a treat, then back to another historic environment with a diorama type of display ending with a film celebrating all cultures.
The AMNH scores a 10 out of 10 from me. This exhibit had something for everyone, the science geek, the history person, the art museum patron, the environmentalist, the global marketing enthusiast and the foodie. The 8 year old, the parent or caregiver, and even the person who has no interest in museums but was happy to receive a free treat in the exhibit. It also successfully exemplifies the AMNH mission
‘To discover, interpret, and disseminate—through scientific research and education—knowledge about human cultures, the natural world, and the universe.’
The ancillary activities – children’s cooking classes, lectures for adults by chefs and agricultural experts, the information provided by the AMNH website all support the diverse scope of the exhibit along with the excellent gift shop. I found it interesting the example of corporate sponsorship with Whole Foods. There were other sponsors listed on the pick up card available at the beginning of the museum but only Whole Foods received a major acknowledgement in the exhibit — prominently displayed in everyone’s favorite room.
I was impressed with the inclusive ‘all you can eat’ ambitious smorgasbord (pun intended) scope of the exhibit and understand now some of the Museum’s decisions on organizing and presenting the information. Metaphorically speaking the exhibit was organized like a necklace. The clasps were the opening and ending films, the 2 informational walkways were the cord with the beads being the Aztec marketplace and the historic diorama environments. The center jewel was the Whole Foods room with the light table and the high tech test kitchen. Continuing the metaphor, the matching bracelet could be considered the gift shop and the AMNH website.
My companion reminded me of another difference about our visit verses the art museum. There was no audio guide or docent to enhance the experience. I know that there are special tours for this exhibit but unlike the art museum I think the common impression at a History Museum is that most of the information is accessible, popular less arcane and not dependent on structured interpretation.
I will go back again to see this exhibit before it closes if only to be there during chocolate week. And while I am at the AMNH I plan to check out some of the regular exhibits.