Saturday, July 21, 2007

Food Museums

A recent article in Saveur magazine noted different food museums worth visiting, including Upstate New York's own Jell-O Museum. Long ago, I worked on a project for the New York State Museum of Cheese, and of course, I love to eat--and learn about all kinds of food. So I thought I'd check out what kinds of food museums I can find on the web. Conveniently, Food History News has a museum directory of food and beverage museums.

There appear to be a huge number of food-related museums in Europe--including the Museum of Bread Culture in Ulm, Germany and DeLocht, the National Museum of National Asparagus and Mushrooms in the Netherlands.

In the Americans, there are the National Apple Museum, in Biglerville, PA and the Prince Edward Island Potato Museum. But what do all these museums mean--what are they really about? In perusing the entire list, the food museums seem to fall into several distinct categories:

  • food museums that are really about local history--if your biggest industry is agriculture, then a community museum quite naturally focuses on raising corn or peaches, or whatever. If you're on the sea and your history is about fishing for sardines or whales, then that's your food museum.
  • collectors museums--people collect everything, and some people collect vinegars, or mustard, or ketchup, or whatever--and then decide to share their collection with the public
  • industrial history museums--museums about how food is processing--grist mills seem foremost above them.
  • corporate or industry sponsored museums--these, to me, seem a bit problematic. Why? Maybe it's because I suspect that corporate museums only present one point of view. Interestingly, there was a Kelloggs Cereal City USA museum, but it has apparently closed. Although, I have to say, the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota has a great website and looks like a really fun place. Is Spam good for you? Probably not, but the museum seems not to take itself too seriously, and to have developed exhibits that really engage the visitor.
Most memorable food exhibit I ever saw: in 1992, at a museum in Hungary--I can't remember which one. It was a great, thoughtful exhibit (helped along greatly by a colleague who translated labels for me) that explored the role of bread--and all kinds of baked goods--in Hungarian traditional culture. I saw that exhibit at a time, just after the end of Communism in Hungary, that Hungarians were figuring out how to reclaim and reinvigorate their traditional culture that had, in many ways, fallen into decline. And every Christmas, when I bring out my carefully preserved (and now solely decorative) traditionally decorated cookie bought at a train station that same day, I remember that exhibit, and the ongoing importance of maintaining a connection to our past.

(photo above by Drew Harty, of peaches at a Finger Lakes Farmers' Market)

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