of an Exhibition
by Daniel Spock
Published on April 01, 2008, Modified on April 14, 2010
No, this isn’t a museum about that irrelevant crap that shows up unbidden in your email inbox. This is the original SPAM, that innocuous, strangely flavorless canned meat product composed of pork and pork byproducts.
SPAM is the flagship product line of the Hormel meatpacking company in Austin, MN. Is it worthy of an entire museum in its honor? Probably not, but who cares? The place is actually well worth a detour. The most refreshing thing about the SPAM Museum is that the people who have created it have understood the fundamental absurdity of the SPAM “brand promise” and are willing to exploit it with abandon. How else can you explain the special tribute display commemorating the infamous Monty Python “spam, spam, spam, spam” sketch? SPAM is fun to make fun of, the museum suggests, so go with it.
The museum begins with a surprisingly unguarded look at the history of the Hormel meat company. In a clever interactive, visitors can plug into the company switchboard and overhear gossip about the embezzlement that nearly bankrupted the company long before the signature tinned pink meat debuted on the grocery shelf.
The defining moment for SPAM is WWII of course and, as we approach the war, we learn about the Hormel Girls, an all-female traveling big band devoted to selling war bonds an, of course, SPAM. The reminiscences of these musicians are affectingly poignant. You sense that, for some of them at least, this was a peak experience. A tent frames a video GI who regales us with wartime SPAM anecdotes and we can hoist a crate of SPAM for shipment to the front. It may have been the butt of jokes, but the exhibit leaves no doubt that copious quantities of SPAM fueled global allied victory.
There is an engaging participatory SPAM quiz game (hosted until recently by a video Al Franken who has since been replaced by a less political emcee. Franken is currently running for U.S. Senate from Minnesota as a Democrat,) and an assembly line activity where you can package simulated SPAM. A section contains interesting international recipes (SPAM futomaki anyone?) and fascinating factoids about SPAM consumption (Hawaii consumes more per capita than any other state! True!!) If you’ve ever wondered what goes into a can of SPAM, you’ll find out here. “Everything but the squeal” they say. Just what we were afraid of.
Inevitably, the whole thing winds up in the giftshop with a quarter acre of SPAM merch (my faves: a blaze orange knit SPAM hunting cap and a Monty Python Spamalot commemorative can.) Do they mention any of the labor clashes that cropped up periodically at Hormel? No. This corporate exercise in self-deprecation apparently has its limits. Do they serve any SPAM samples? No. (There’s a greasy spoon across the street where you can load up on all the fried SPAM sandwiches you want.) But, all in all, the SPAM Museum makes more of the pink pork product than I ever thought possible. It seems to prove that solid exhibit tradecraft, an approach geared at a variety of levels with a multiplicity of exhibit techniques, can make even the silliest subject engaging, if not particularly significant. Put it on your list. This museum is better than it tastes.