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)

Thursday, July 19, 2007


Conversations about museum leadership seem to be happening everywhere. Several colleagues and I have recently had discussions about whether museum leaders can be trained, whether working with boards is an impossible task, whether a new generation of museum leaders will be willing to commit without adequate pay, and many, many more issues.

A recent discussion made me go back to two presentations at the American Association of Museums meeting in Chicago this year. My notes are a bit sketchy, but two museum leaders provided great food for thought--and perhaps models for us to consider.

Lou Casagrande of the Boston Children's Museum shared his five principles of creating an effective and creative organizational culture (and amazingly, I can't remember what else was in the session). He talked about creating a culture of light, not shadows, in an institution.

His five principles: (and I take full responsibility for any mistatements)

1. Manage with vision and values. Make sure everyone in the institution knows the big idea.
You can't be creative unless you know why.

2. Fight hierarchy, bosses and boundaries. His job, he thought, was to "create strategic chaos." Of course, he said, you also have to get things done, but this point, rare from a director, was about thinking outside the box within your organization.

3. Build around individuals, but plan for turnover. The individual makes things happen, but don't build your whole culture around individuals.

4. Open all your doors (metaphorically speaking, I guess) People, ideas, and innovations should be coming through all your doors.

5. Fund projects big and little. The Children's Museum has a program where staff can submit low-cost ideas that are reviewed by a staff peer group and funded. So great ideas can come from the maintenance staff, the gift shop clerks, or anywhere!

In another session, Emlyn Koster of the Liberty Science Center talked about threshold conditions for a culture of appreciative inquiry (learn more about that term and what it means here) Why have a culture of inquiry--several other speakers in the session talked about this culture as a prerequisite to change. If you ask questions, change begins to happen--and, at the same time, connections within and outside of the institution begin to happen.

His threshold conditions:

1. A mission that externally matters. Be explicity about the areas of intended useful outcome and link service/content and audience need.

2. Transformation of consciousness. Value the common good over self-interest and undertake such an effort wholeheartedly, not piecemeal.

3. Mission-driven, activist leadership. According to Koster, Aristotle defined leadership as "the pursuit of positive consequences in the world." A leader's job is clarifying and communicating the value of the organization.

4. A mission-aligned vision, values and strategy. He advocates for core and aspirational values that anchor the museum's core beliefs. Develop impact strategies that spur progress.

How often have any of us been in meetings where long, horribly boring discussions happen around tiny, tiny details--with no time left to discuss the things that really matter. So the last word goes to Emlyn Koster,

"Make sure that our conversations aren't analogous to how you shift the deck chairs on the Titanic."

Sunday, July 1, 2007

It's Summer!

As of early July, all six exhibits that are a part of Summer in the Finger Lakes open! It's been a long time collaboration between Riverhill and six local history organizations in the Finger Lakes of upstate New York. Five years ago, John Marks at the Geneva Historical Society and I were talking about vacations in the region--and how we thought there were some interesting things that might be worth exploring. So five years, many grants, loads of meeting, multiple staff changes, more than a few new babies (with two more joining us in the next month) and tons of work later, we're done! The exhibits explore six topics related to summer vacations in this region of upstate New York. They are (with their current locations):

From Steamboat Landing to State Park:
Public Access in the Finger Lakes

Geneva Historical Society, Geneva
From Lake Trout to Grape Pie:
Summer Food in the Finger Lakes

Yates County Genealogical & Historical Society, Penn Yan
From Steamboat Captain to Winery Host:
Summer Work in the Finger Lakes

The History Center of Tompkins County, Ithaca
From Toddler to Teenager:
Growing Up in the Finger Lakes

Chemung Valley Museum, Elmira
From Sacred to Stereotype and Back Again:
Native American Images in the Finger Lakes

Cayuga Museum of History and Art, Auburn

Several aspects made this project unique. After a number of false starts and not-so-great ideas, we decided to use screen doors (it's summer, right?) as the frames for the exhibit panels. Now, the doors stay at an institution, while the panel inserts are easily removed and packed for shipping or delivery. This means each organization gets to use all six exhibits over time--with very little effort. This view shows the installation at the Cayuga Museum.

Although the Riverhill team developed and designed all the panels and interactives, each museum also fleshed out the exhibit with objects and images from its own collection, other collections in the partnership, and their own community. This encouraged lending among the local museums, led staff to reconceptualize some of their own collections, and helped others to reach out into their community to borrow objects.

The team also worked to develop a family friendly take-away piece, around the idea of those car games we used to play. We also developed a website where, we hope, people will share their memories of vacationing in the region. Don't know the Finger Lakes? It's a beautiful region--still, in many ways, very unspoiled, but under fairly substantial threat in terms of growing development. The great contemporary photos in all the exhibitions, taken by Drew Harty, really connect the past to present and demonstrate what might be lost should we not pay attention to change.

To learn more, visit the project website at

Catch Up Blog--Remembering

Hard to believe it's been a full month since I posted anything. So back to Amsterdam. I visited four different museums that looked at different parts of 20th century Dutch history. And in every case, I was impressed at how thoughtfully--and how unflinchingly--the museums told part of a whole story. First, of course, the Anne Frank Museum. I can't remember when I first read her diary--probably junior high, I guess, like so many others. It was a beautiful sunny day, and of course, a long line to get in, so you sort of shuffle through the place. But I was struck, in particular, by two things. I had somehow thought that the site would be furnished, but the rooms are totally empty, as was Otto Frank's wish. However, you can purchase postcards of the spaces furnished, which were just done temporarily. To my daughter, it seemed less interesting unfurnished--but to me, the rooms, even though full of people, echoed with their past.

And, as always, the real is compelling--seeing her real diary--brought that little dark-haired girl and all her hopes and imagination to life.

The Jewish Historical Museum was an unexpectedly interesting place--with exhibits done to an incredibly high standard. I don't know why I chose it as a place to go, but was incredibly glad I had. It's in three former synagogues in Amsterdam and the main exhibition areas are two in former sanctuaries, and a children's museum on several floors. The exhibit on religion places the objects in appropriate settings within the synagogue and smaller objects, images and media are placed in pew-like settings. It covers a wide time period, but I sat in quiet silence and watched a home movie of a Jewish wedding in Amsterdam in 1942--top hats, tails, very fancy dresses, and every single person, from the youngest to the oldest wearing a yellow star on their chest. It was stunning to realize that, perhaps, in just two or three years, every single person in the movie might have died. And by the way, something I noticed in all of the museums. They never used the word died or killed by the Nazis, they rightly used the word murdered.

Another space looked at the history of the Jews in the Netherlands from 1900 to the present-day. Again, a beautiful, unusual installation. Objects were displayed chronologically around a square in the center of the room, and located, several on each site, were monitors on which you could select an object and learn more. And then, outside that square, was another set of small, two person benches, with an object or image and a video screen. You could sit down and learn in greater detail about the object that you were sitting right next to. It really encouraged learning and personal reflection and I'll long remember a mother and young daughter intently looking and listening to the history of a object.

The children's museum part of the museum had an entirely different feel. It was about understanding what being Jewish is, and encouraging questioning, thoughtful behavior. On the top floor was the amazing bed--a place to encourage dreams--and to acknowledge nightmares... An opening label in the Children’s Museum says, “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone! Learning can be fun! Certainly if you do it together. In this house, children can ask anything they want. Sometimes questions are more important than answers: What is written there? Why? And what does it mean for me?”

Unexpectedly, the Rijksmuseum had an exhibit about this time period as well. It is collecting documentation of the Nazi occupation of Holland and this was a room of photos taken by Germans stationed here. What was so stunning was the banality of the images--just like everyone else's souvenir photo album, with Germans posing in front of flower gardens, eating in outdoor cafes and the like. Chilling.

And finally, the Dutch Resistance Museum--the Verzetsmuseum--an in-depth exploration of the resistance during the Nazi occcupation. Done on, I suspect, a smaller budget than the other museums, it brought you deeply into the time. In a design sense, several elements contributed to the feeling of secrecy--words were projected on the floor--collaborate or resist? for instance.

You walked through a fairly complicated exhibit floor plan, without much sense of what was ahead of you, and the individual stories were shown in small boxes that you looked into. In all these museums, the compelling questions that arose were about our own behaviors. What we would do in this situation? How would we react? What makes a person resist? Why do we take a stand on an issue--even if it might mean our own death? In these uncertain times, questions for all of us to consider.

In addition, the Anne Frank Museum and the Resistance Museum had collaborated on a walking tour that took the visitor from one museum to the other--noting places of significant Nazi actions and resistance along the way. It's a very different thing to take a walking tour that's not about pilasters and architectural style--this one made the past come alive. As I walked along Amsterdam's canals and passed older residents--I very much wanted to talk to them about their memories of World War II.