Thursday, September 29, 2016

What Do Mushrooms Have to Do with Bridge-Building?

Again this semester, I'm teaching International Experiments in Community Engagement (more on that to come) for JHU's Museum Studies Program online, and as a result, thinking about community engagement is always on my radar.  I've come to think that it's too facile a term, one that we bandy around without enough deep thinking.  If you haven't read it yet, you might want to be reading Nina's Simon's new book on relevance, which I think might be a better frame than community engagement for thinking transformatively about our work.  Reading Nina's book and discussing engagement with my students, I decided that I needed to share projects that inspire me in some way, ones that connect and build bridges in our communities.

The answers to how to connect with community are different everywhere, and for every organization. So my first community take: mushrooms!  Last winter, in Riga, Latvia, I was facilitating a workshop at the Latvian National Museum of Natural History and someone happened to mention that they had a mushroom exhibit every year, with fresh mushrooms, that was incredibly popular.  It seemed such a surprising thing so I kept an eye out, and sure enough, last week on their Facebook page, there it was! Many thanks to Polina Skinke of the museum for sharing more about it, including all these photos.)

It turns out that in Latvia, mushrooms are not just a food, but an integral part of the culture. The museum event has been going on for decades (since Soviet times), as you can see from the photos, although clearly, this is a tradition that's lasted for centuries.  Says Alex Cowles, who blogs in English at Life in Riga,
Latvians are bonkers about mushrooms. It’s a national obsession. There is barely a single stretch of forest untouched by foragers come late summer and autumn. You can’t walk for longer than a minute or two in any direction without bumping into people carrying baskets and knives, wearing picking gear, complete with straw hats creeping about like Nosferatu on his day off. 
Believe it or not, mushrooming is, in fact, one of the most popular open-air pastimes among Latvians. (I guess drinking beer wasn’t one of the considerations.) It’s especially favoured among older generations, since it’s fairly low-energy, it’s free food for those with less income and many will tell you that even a poor crop will at least get you out for a walk in the forest. If you find yourself with an abundance, you can even sell them at the market for a bit of extra cash.
Sometime each September, the museum staff and some friends head out to collect mushrooms, as they have for years. But now there's a twist:  they run a Facebook contest for someone to go along on the collecting mission with the mycologist and the staff. I like that it builds community not only outside the museum, but inside as well. Creativity always flourishes when we change our view, and here's a great chance to do that.

They then return and carefully and beautifully set up all the mushrooms, all carefully identified.  Note that the pot denotes edible ones.  There are special stickers, cookies, and activities for kids.  I was amazed in the photographs at how many people, of all ages, are carefully looking at the mushrooms, taking notes, snapping photos, and, I have to imagine, having conversations with the people standing next to them.

The display builds on the museum's deep knowledge--they have mycologists who, of course, are experts, but it also honors the expert knowledge of those who come to look and share.  I imagine that it's an event that some people never miss, even though the mushrooms might be the same from year to year.

Last winter I also visited a market and ate some great local food in Riga, and I can see that a whole generation of young people are beginning to think more about local food, so I can also imagine that the museum plays a role in keeping a piece of important knowledge alive, knowledge that helps make Latvia, Latvia, not by keeping it behind glass, or published in a journal article, but by making collective, community knowledge come alive.  As Nina Simon in the Art of Relevance, writes, "Relevance is not something an institution can assign by fiat. Your work matters when it matters to people—when THEY deem it relevant, not you."

Ready for some mushrooms?  Here's a  version of the most popular recipe for mushroom soup, via a 1984 New York Times article. Enjoy!

1 pound mushrooms
6 slices bacon
1 medium onion
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup water
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sour cream

Wash the mushrooms, and cut into thin slices.
Dice the bacon, and fry until lightly browned in a 12-inch skillet.
Dice the onion, and add to the bacon.
Fry the mixture, stirring, until the onion is just wilted. Add the mushrooms.
Over low heat, stir with a spoon for 10 minutes.
Add flour, water and salt.
Bring water to boil, and boil for 5 minutes until the mixture has the consistency of gravy.

Add the sour cream. Stir until well blended.

Thanks, dear Latvian colleagues, for inspiring me!

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