Food Conjures Memory: Making Memory in the Museum

Food Conjures Memory: Making Memory in the Museum


Zella Llerena, Master of Museum Studies, Faculty of Information, University of Toronto 

Zella Llerena is a Chicago native pursuing her Master’s degree in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto. Llerena received her Bachelor’s degree in Bilingual/Bicultural Education with a minor in History from Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago, Illinois. Currently, Llerena is a freelance food writer, food museum advocate and works with organizations that promote food sustain-ability. Also, she is a collector of antique cookbooks and is currently working on publishing her first cookbook. 


Food is one of the principle components in understanding culture. Since the beginning of time, the human race has searched for food, formed communities around food-rich areas and created culture rituals to celebrate food. To exclude or isolate food from the public space of the museum while representing other aspects of culture is to deny the significance of food as a defining element in the culture and history of exhibitions. By exploring food practices in museums from 1850 to the present the various ways in which food is misrepresented becomes clear. Exploration of particular museums that have become culinary visionaries in educating their publics on food issues, illustrates the possibility for giving food a contemporary voice in their exhibits and aligning museums food service with the Slow Food revolution.

Food: A human story

Traditionally, the North American museum appears to have divorced food history and food from the museum experience. Food tends to be excluded from museums or reduced to the background (“Museum Directory,” 2008). Yet there are unlimited possibilities to conjure memory, make historical connections and contextualize food history in the greater schemata of museum genres using food. This paper attempts to look at the history and display of food in the museum, contemporary views of food and what the future entails for food and the museum.

Since the inception of the museum, culinary objects have been on display: ceramics, dishes, dried spices, deity offering plates, industrial cooking ware and cast iron pots (“Soul Food”, 2008). Most of these culinary objects are displayed as static items, frozen in time. Yet these culinary objects have rich curatorial potential beyond their status as simple possessions of their former owners. In museums, food displays and aromas conjure memories of the human experience: for example, time, family, celebrations, migration or war. Food can evoke memory, create a sense of place and help define the human story.

Soul food is an example of a human food story that travelled to distant lands and was enjoyed by many cultures, which originated in the America. Soul food began in the Americas when Native American food staples were sent by ship to Africa to feed captured slaves. African slaves then took those indigenous ingredients and developed a cuisine - soul food - prepared African style. As soul food came to the United States, European immigrants such as the Irish, Czech, Italians, Germans, Acadians and French then made their contribution to soul food (“Soul Food”, 2008). In contemporary times, Hispanic immigrants have also put their stamp on soul food.

Soul food sustained rich land owners, the immigrant working class, and slaves who had to work all day in the fields. Soul food then migrated to Canada and Paris, France, with runaway slaves who fled to Canada in the 19th century and African-American exiled artists during the 1930s in Paris. (“International Directory of Food and Beverage Museums or Collections,” 2008) Soul food, like many other peasant, slave or indigenous dishes, has migrated from the pauper’s plate to the prince’s fine china. We tune in to watch famous American TV chefs such as Emeril Lagasse and Paula Dean make millions of dollars promoting native and immigrant food, yet the stories of those ancestral ingredients and the people who tried to make hot and tasty food from the leavings and to ease their woes are rarely told in the museum (“Top 10 Foodie Millionaires”, 2008).

Alexis Benoit Soyer: Food and the Great Exhibition of 1851

Bennett’s theory of exhibitionary complex argues that the Great Exhibition of 1851 transformed citizens into subjects of knowledge who would, from that point forward, trust the museum to be the authority on culture and history. Food in the Great Exhibition of 1851 played its part in creating the exhibitionary complex and molding its citizens’ palettes and future food securities (Bennett, 1995, p. 59-89). Across the street from the site of the Great Exhibition of 1851, there was a restaurant run by the most sought-after chef in Victorian England, a Frenchman named Alexis Benoit Soyer. Soyer’s restaurant would also become one of the “public displays of state power” in Victorian England. In fact, not only did Soyer’s restaurant become a public display of power, but the very notion of being seen in the public restaurant resulted from his culinary vision. 

Alexis Soyer was known throughout Victorian England during the 19th century as one of the most renowned chefs and food activists. Soyer was a colourful character—one of the first celebrity chefs. He was also known for his culinary extravagance, home cookbook publications and his invention of the soup kitchen, which fed many of the poor during the Great Irish Famine of 1847. Additionally, Soyer reformed army food for the soldiers of the Crimean War. However, Soyer’s contributions to the Great Exhibition of 1851, along with those of other participants, would inevitably lay the foundation for food globalization, food consumption and food consumerism in the West.

Before the exhibition, the Mayor of York , England asked Chef Soyer to cook for a pre-exhibition dinner at the mayor’s house. Soyer enchanted the mayor’s guests with his culinary fusions of ingredients from Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas:


    That this emblem provided the backdrop to such cosmopolitan fare was salient: it spoke to the way in which the production and consumption of food would become a crucial motif in the positive representation of globalization as it was understood at the Exhibition: it also highlighted the important role that the Victorian metropolis would fulfill in the realization of this new world order (Young, 2008).


Thus, the Exhibition organizers whetted the palettes of the mayor’s Victorian guests by hiring Soyer to create a luxurious international feast that would encourage them to want more.

Soyer offered a culinary experience unlike any other before. He named the restaurant Soyer’s International Exhibition: The Gastronomic Symposium of All Nations. The food exhibition was not only meant to astound with its diversity but also to present the possibility of commercial food industrialization and “free” trade. Soyer articulated the correlation between cosmopolitanism and international cuisine. In a catalogue advertising Soyer’s restaurant, Soyer promised to give a unique culinary dining experience:

    The catalogue promised that the visitor to the Symposium might well find her or himself dining opposite “grave and lively Frenchmen, expatiating over their potages and fricandeux; phlegmatic Turks, discussing pilaf and hachis; mercurial Persians, enjoying their sherbert.” The list went on; there would be Spaniards with olla podrida, Americans with Johnnycakes, Russians with caviar, Cossacks with train oil, and Chinese with stewed dog. There might even be New Zealanders—but the catalogue recanted: “no, not New Zealanders, for who could form any idea of the horror and dismay which would be caused by some ebony-skinned and boomeranged chieftain demanding ‘baked young woman’ for two, and a ‘cold boiled missionary’ to follow? (Young, 2008)

Soyer’s culinary dishes and advertisements promoted racial marginalization and the European colonial concept of savagery and barbarism: “The West vs. the East, Cook vs. the Cannibal.” Food, along with other imagined displays of power and “savagery” (the Hottentot Venus) gained a significant role in the Great Exhibition of 1851.

On an economic note, before the Great Exhibition, European shopkeepers would have to translate their food products into other languages to increase trade. However, by displaying their food wares at the Exhibition, food needed no translation. Food became a common language of international trade. Along with Soyer’s international cuisine, the Exhibition’s food displays became one of the catalysts for promoting the idea of Pan-Europeanism, free trade and globalization.

In the journal The Crystal Palace and Its Contents, October 1851, an editorial argued that the stomach would be the vehicle to project capitalism.  The journal, following Adam Smith’s theories of capitalism, regarded food as the most important need of mankind before clothing and lodging. Coinciding with Smith’s observations, food displays at the Exhibition became crucial to England’s idea of capitalism and colonization. The Exhibition’s message was clear to its visitors and its sponsors: 1) the importance of a unified West, which foster greater free market activity; and 2) collective goal to of conquer ‘barbaric’ countries, their raw materials and resources, such as food, would amount to unlimited economic growth and greater trade between Western countries.

Food Exhibit Case Studies: 1988-2008

In 1988, a food feasibility study was done for the Science Museum of London by a group of experts. ‘The Food Team’ consisted predominately of women, and was referred to by some of their male colleagues as “the girls”; these women were considered better suited for creating a food exhibit. They were to develop one of the first contemporary food exhibits in England, which was supposed to be sponsored mainly by biotechnology food corporations (Macdonald, 2002, p. 115).

In one particular exhibit, Food For Thought: Exhibit, 1990, visitors were led to feel like prospective consumers who had unlimited choices. Museum visitors could indulge in the possibility of eating a plethora of diverse foods in a “supermarket science” space and interact with entertaining buttons. However, the exhibit failed to illustrate the negative effects of “unlimited choices.”

Jane Bywaters, project leader, suggested to the new director of the Science Museum that a food-related exhibition could be successful. However, Bywaters and the Food Team were concerned about food production methods and food health scares in the media, such as recent salmonella poisoning from eggs and news exposés on factory food production methods. Bywaters recommended that the agricultural part be omitted from the exhibition because of its controversial nature. By ignoring the agricultural side, they would not have to touch the  commercial food industry, which the Food Team referred to as a “hot potato,” especially considering that the exhibits’ major sponsor were biotechnology companies.

Furthermore, a member of the education department at the Science Museum was also concerned about multicultural contributions to the food exhibit, as stated in a memo sent to other team members:

    The Museum is often castigated (particularly by teachers) for producing exhibitions which appear to ignore developments such as the rise of a multi-racial society, and the changing role of women in society. It is hard to see how most of our galleries could show that we are aware of them without, I think, being accused of tokenism or hypocrisy. Topic areas on “herbs and spices” or “staple foods” would take care of the “ethnic” issue (Macdonald, 2002, p. 116-117).

This same issue came to the fore when a Greenpeace activist stormed the opening ceremony and gave a five-minute speech about the ills of biotechnology (Levidow, 1998, p. 1). The activist scolded the museum staff for not addressing the health concerns of the public. By ignoring the politics of food, the museum assumed that their publics were ignorant to food issues.

    In recent news, the Science Museum’s new exhibit, Future Food: An Exhibition Debating Genetic Modification (2009), opens the floor for debate on both sides; pro genetic modification (GM) or no genetic modification. . Unfortunately, the exhibit leans more toward pro GM ideologies, supporting GM seeds consumption to quell hunger issues, and suggesting that an anti-GM stance lacks validity or proof (a contentious stance given current insights regarding GM-foods).

Comparatively, two popular North American travelling exhibits, Chocolate: The Exhibition (2003) and the George Washington Carver (2008) resulted in mixed success. Chocolate: The Exhibition actually worked with food curators, culinary historians and was funded by the National Science Foundation (whether this was a conscious decision, Chocolate: The Exhibition was not funded by a corporation that has a negative stance in the community, unlike the George Washington Carver exhibit) to highlight the history of chocolate, indigenous contributions, medicinal uses, and manufacturing and global market history (“Chocolate The Exhibition”, 2008). In contrast, the George Washington Carver, another popular exhibit, examined the life and contributions of one of the most famous agricultural scientists of the 20th century. Carver, a renaissance man, was born a slave yet triumphed as an agricultural scientist who promoted organically grown food and encouraged American Southern farmers to move away from a one-crop system to crop diversification. Carver promoted the use of organic fertilizers, mixed with his concoction of peanuts and other organic materials, to yield healthy sustainable crops while eradicating poverty. Carver empowered many underprivileged families in the South and abroad to turn homegrown crops into cash. Ironically the biotechnology corporation, Monsanto, was a major sponsor of the George Washington Carver exhibit when Carver, during his time, was completely against chemical additives to foods or fertilizers. (“Monsanto Fund Sponsors George Washington Carver Exhibit”, 2008).

Food Displayed in the Art Museum

Although many artists understand the relationships between art, food and culture, the museum as an institution has yet to become aware of this. Historically, artistic depictions of food in the West occur in five ways: 1) paintings of Adam and Eve with the forbidden fruit; 2) aristocrats and royalty feasting on culinary delicacies at festivals and lavish banquets; 3) market scenes of peasants selling their goods and eating hearty dishes; 4) still-life paintings of food; and 5) The Last Supper (1498) by Leonardo da Vinci (Bendiner, 2004, p. 31-75). However, in the latter part of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, artists became much more critical of the relationship between food, capitalism and consumption. Notably, some art critics argue that Andy Warhol’s 200 Soup Can (1962) was an attack on consumerism and living in an inhumane world (Bendiner).

There have also been feminist critiques of these tradition depictions of food in art. Judy Chicago’s classic artwork, The Dinner Party (1979), challenged women’s role in history and art, and their identity in the kitchen. “I sometimes describe it as a reinterpretation of The Last Supper, from the point of view of those who had done the cooking throughout history,” she says. “Because if you look at The Last Supper paintings, there is all this food on the table, which sort of miraculously appeared and then miraculously was cleared away. So, who did it? Right? And why weren’t they there? They’re [the women] always absent from the story...” (“Feminist artist Judy Chicago subject of new exhibition”, 2002). In her piece Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), Martha Rosler, another feminist artist, critiqued her Jewish Orthodox upbringing, traditional women’s roles and food co-modification by satirizing Julia Child’s cooking show (“Food for Thought: A Video Art Sampler”, 2006).

Recently, contemporary artist Rirkrit Tiravanija has created his artist works by bringing food directly into the museum’s physical space. Tiravanija cooks for his visitors for free, encouraging them to share his food and to talk amongst each other. Ironically, Tiravanija is transcribing common cultural food practices of non-Western cultures.  Holistically, then, what have all of these artists tried to relate to us about food through their artworks? Are they trying to awake food consciousness?

Food in Science Museums

In addition to art, food has also been exhibited in science museums dating back to the 1700s. Food in a more agricultural space was exhibited at the first State Fair in 1765 in Windsor, Nova Scotia, which was sponsored by the Niagara Agricultural Society. Eventually, the state or county fair spread throughout Canada and the United States. North American state fairs were a mix of livestock competitions, food nutrition and food science (“History of Fairs,” 2005). Interestingly, organizers of state fairs appeared to understand the relationship between food, science and agriculture. I would argue that state fairs were pioneers in offering an interactive experience by making connections between food and agricultural science. However, they were considered  mere amusements for the lower classes, and were not viewed by others as a cultural event (Lavenda, 1992).

Since the 1930s, the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry has often successfully connected food and agricultural science to its exhibits. Many exhibits were recently reformulated to be more dynamic. However, they are classic staples at the Museum of Science and Industry: Genetics and the Baby Chicks Hatchery, which addresses how food is brought to the table, Farm Tech, which illustrates food and agriculture in Illinois, and the travelling exhibit Hungry Planet: What the World Eats a photo exhibit of families around the world posing with their food staples.

Furthermore, the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto presented The Food Show, an exhibition that looked at food culture locally and globally in the 1980s. In retrospect, although science museums have not necessarily confronted the “hot potato,” commercial food industries and government food policies, they have opened up the beginnings of a dialogue on food. Furthermore, many science museums have designed exhibits that allow visitors to make their own decision on biotechnology versus slow food.

Food in History Museums

There have been numerous exhibits in North American history museums that have used food as a complement to other themed exhibits. However, in history museums, food is usually a plastic display alongside cavemen; dried cornstalks; exotic spices in glass display cases; or spoils of war in military museums. The famous 19th century entomologist Jean Henri Fabre once said, “History celebrates the battlefields whereon we meet our death, but scorns to speak of the plowed fields whereby we thrive; it knows the names of the King’s bastards, but cannot tell us the origin of wheat” (“Museums of Food, Museums of War,” 2008). Food has rarely played the leading role or shown to be crucial to understanding who we are, where we have been and where we are going.

Heritage sites are much more food inclusive than many museums: many have working historical kitchens to feed the public which provide a holistic experience. Examples include Iowa’s Living History Farm, Williamsburg, Virginia Heritage sites, as well as Mackenzie House and Campbell House, both in Toronto, Ontario. However, many heritage sites (not necessarily those mentioned) glorify the historic cuisine of the elite class without addressing the exploitation of indigenous people, Africans, Aboriginals and indentured servants who made those lavish feasts possible. For example, famous British culinary historian and chef Ivan Day consults European and American museums on historic 17th and 18th century cuisine. Day’s website offers classes in Victorian sugar works and confectionary, yet there is no mention of the strong connection between sugar and slavery (“Periodwork Sugarwork and Confectionary,” 2008). By blatantly omitting or silencing any mention of the historical contributions of others, historians and museologists perpetuate the same imperialist ideology that have affected the world for centuries.

Dining in the Museum

To fully grasp the importance of including food as a vital aspect of the museum, this section will examine not only how food is represented in exhibits but also how food is fed to its visitors. Traditionally, the North American museum cafeteria or food court has been hidden from public view. Wallace illustrates this in stating:

    [There are] Formica tables and plastic chairs in areas that amount to little more than a food court. Some museums conceal their restaurants in the basement, or behind the museum store, or in a crowded alcove off the main passageway…big museums can afford restaurants and cafeterias and some plant satellite cafés in the corridors around blockbuster exhibitions (Wallace, 2006, p. 145).

Nevertheless, in the 21st century, if museums are to be relevant educators of the next generation, how they feed the public is one indicator of the museum’s image in the community.

Although many art museums are benefiting from the emerging food revolution (Slow Food) some prefer to continue viewing food as inconsequential to the institution. Too many museum administrations focus on increasing museum revenue, recruiting new members, fine dining, acquiring top chefs and offering a space for relaxation for those who can afford pricey dishes, such as Wolfgang Puck at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and Frank restaurant at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Some museums house franchise restaurants, including McDonald’s at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Others, however, have recognized the connection between offer good, nutritious meals and fulfillment of the museum’s mission.

The American Indian Museum in Washington, D.C. allows visitors to ponder what the New World might have looked like in the 15th century, with the Mitsitam Café offering affordable, fresh regionally grown organic and indigenous cuisine. “It also points out, albeit subtly, how healthful the American diets were before Europeans arrived to lard it over them” (“Mitsitam Café, Truly All-American”, 2005). The Mitsitam Café also offers some of the same food amenities for “picky” kids but without compromising quality and indigenous ingredients.

In addition, the California Academy of Sciences Café in San Francisco offers a variety of multicultural foods that reflect the city’s ethno-ecological environment. The Academy’s chef, Charles Phan, commented on his role in designing the restaurant: “Sustainable, organic food is a must today, especially in a museum like the Academy. But we also want to preserve culture. We want to create an education experience in which the food has a story” (California Academy of Sciences”, 2008). What is so fascinating about the California Academy of Sciences restaurant endeavor is that staff have created strict food guidelines that require locally grown fair trade food to be served to their public at a “minimal environmental cost.” Some museums, more than others, have become culinary visionaries in feeding their publics healthy, affordable and tasty food, yet they still lack the insight to see that changes in food concepts should not end at the lunch counter but change fundamentally throughout the museum.

Unfortunately, in the museum, food has a subservient identity which has changed only recently as museum staff have realized its significance. Historically, food in the museum has been placed on two platters—one for the elite and another for everyone else. At the museum, most gala events are for the “selected” few, who are offered wine, a full-course meal, and a sense of exclusivity. As guests, they feel free to mingle and drink while artifacts and art objects are displayed in the background for their pleasure. On the other hand, most regular visitors are relegated to eating overpriced processed, fried or microwaveable food at the museum’s franchise restaurant. Furthermore, if a regular visitor is caught with food or drink in a defined space, he is usually stopped by a security guard. If food is exhibited, it is often perceived to have a “separate but equal” relationship with the rest of the exhibit, rather than having a voice and a story to tell of its own. In the 21st century, the museum has a social, historical, and creative responsibility to make a concerted effort to change the way food is related to the museum experience.

The Food Museum: Does It Exist?

Even though there are food-themed museums in North America, most of them are novelty museums or corporate food museums, such as the Chocolate Museum in New Brunswick, the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota, and the Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanta, Georgia. Nevertheless, food museums are now part of the emerging food culture movement. Two in particular have made great strides in helping the museum and food world understand that food is much more complex than previously assumed and that it has a story to be told: the Southern Food & Beverage Museum and the online Food Museum.

The Southern Food & Beverage Museum (SoFAB), based in New Orleans, Louisiana, celebrates the rich ethnically diverse culinary history of New Orleans and the South and the role of the Southern farmer. In addition, SoFAB promotes food sustainability in a post-Katrina generation by helping restore New Orleans restaurants and local fisheries and by promoting support for local farmers (“Restorative”, 2008). In comparison, the Food Museum not only exhibits a plethora of online food exhibits, but also encourages its visitors to actively participate in its projects. For example, through the “Ask the food museum” feature, visitors are able to inquire about anything that relates to food and receive a response. Furthermore, the museum has proposed that a new branch of the Smithsonian on Washington’s National Mall be designated a National Museum of Food & Farm. This Food Museum would replace the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is the only government building on the museum mall (“National Museum Food Proposal”, 2008).

Curiously, although the United States is considered one of the most developed countries in the world, it does not house any national public museum dedicated to food and agriculture. Elsewhere in North America, at least, Canada has the National Agriculture Museum in Ottawa, and Mexico has the Museo Naciónal de Agricultura in Chapingo. Europe has the Agropolis Museum: Food & Agricultures of the World in Montpellier, China has a National Agriculture Museum in Beijing, and India has the National Agricultural Science Museum in New Delhi. Why is there not a National Museum of Food and Agriculture in the United States? American farmer-poet Wendell Barry poignantly stated, “The ideal corporate customer today is the industrial eater…who does not know that eating is an agricultural act, who no longer knows or imagines the connections between eating and the land, and who is therefore necessarily passive and uncritical” (Belasco, 2004, p.1). Hopefully, Barry’s arguments are not the defining factor in deterring the creation of a national food and agriculture museum in the United States.

As people move away from 20th century individualism and consumer capitalism, interest in food issues has heightened. Many non-profit organizations have formed in order to address a renewal of food interests and concerns toward food safety. These organizations, which reconnect with the attributes of a humanistic food-sharing society, include the Slow Food Movement Worldwide, the Ghetto Gourmet San Francisco, the Institute for Community Resource Development in Chicago, Green For All Oakland, in California, Local Food Plus Canada, Culinary Historians of Ontario and Greenbelt Canada. These organizations have taken on the role of the museum by engaging their publics, empowering them to play a pro-active role (whatever that may be), and are increasing their memberships and designing many successful travelling exhibits that envelop the human history of food.

The Future of Food in Museums

Food offers many possibilities for the museum and its public: 1) it offers insight into humanity’s whole history, art and science; 2) it raises consciousness and educates the museum-going public about its rich living history, which can aid in mobilizing North Americans to combat obesity, food-related diseases, and change how and what they eat; and 3) it offers a unique opportunity to market the direct opposite of our industrialized consumer reality through food sustainability, tasty locally organic grown food served in inclusive restaurants at an affordable price while encouraging the aesthetics of food sharing; and 4) it increases dialogue and hopefully action about world food issues.

Food has so much to tell us about who we are. As Ivan Karp, a well-known museologist,  once said, “We are a multicultural society; there is no such thing as making it or becoming it. It’s a fact of life. The problem we face…how to turn our multiculturalism into something different, namely a society based on cultural pluralism—a society in which people can be different things, and sometimes can be more than one thing, without suffering censorship”(Greenberg,1996, p. 267). Food facilitates cultural pluralism when properly understood. Food is one aspect of the history of humanity that embodies who we are. If exhibited correctly, hopefully dialogue and an awakening of consciousness will begin.



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