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Food glorious food, how can we display it? Food and drink exhibitions in museums

Food glorious food, how can we display it? Food and drink exhibitions in museums

Try entering ‘food and drink museums’ into Google. The results will tell you three things about the current status of food and drink in museums. Firstly, food and drink museums are characterised as ‘weird’ and, as a consequence, trivialised. Secondly, most food and drink collections have their own dedicated museums, which are confined to large cities in the US and, to a lesser extent, the UK. Finally, food and drink in most museums tends to be restricted to the (often overpriced) cafés; few museums have interpreted aliment in their displays.

Given the importance of food and drink to all human beings, this absence is odd. Food is not only sustenance: it is pleasure, it is culture, it is identity. As Roland Barthes suggests, food is a “system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations, and behaviours”.

I would suggest several interlinked factors prevent many museums and heritage sites from seeing the interpretive value of the material culture of food and drink. The first issue is attitudinal. As shown by a quick Google search, food and drink museums are often trivialised. Secondly, many museums might wonder how interesting food and drink related objects are for their audiences. Often such collections seem mundane and, frankly, quite dull. Finally, many museums might lack food and drink related material culture. Beyond eating and drinking vessels, few traces of edible culture have lasted due to its ephemerality.

Encouragingly, academics now take food and drink seriously as an historical study. Since the 1980s, a sub-section of historians has been producing high-quality and thought-provoking food and drink histories. Museology is playing catch-up, but in recent years several books on the topic of food and museums have been published. Numerous specialist food and drink museums have been established around the globe within the past decade and more museums have interpreted food and drink culture as part of their temporary exhibitions.

Here are some examples of good practice in food and drink exhibitions, which you could emulate in your museum.

Defining terms broadly


Exhibition space. Poster with text in newspaper heading fonts. Text reads: Kip Hurrah! Chinese Excluded! Democratic Chinese Exclusion Bill Our Democratic President, Horton House Plaza, tonight, come out and ratify come everyone! No more Chinese.
Figure 1 Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant © MOFAD Museum of Food and Drink

‘Food and drink’ collections are diverse in nature, which is their strength. From the food imagery in Rembrandt’s ‘The Slaughtered Ox’ to recipes in Mrs Beeton’s ‘Book of Household Management’, food and drink influence many objects and thus crop up in most museum collections. The Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn, USA, uses a broad range of objects to interpret food and drink history. The museum’s most recent offering, ‘Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant’, explored the 170-year history of Chinese American restaurants and how they connect to immigration, food culture and American identity. To convey these themes, the curators used old neon restaurant signs, cooking utensils and a timeline of menus. The curators displayed the menus in a way that was almost artful, making the exhibition visually appealing as well as informative.

Exploring the range of interpretive opportunities


Exhibition space with display case in the forground. In the background two people reading text panels. Image of bowl of curry on the wall, with text above reading 'knights of the raj'
Figure 2 Knights of the Raj © Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

Food and drink heritage can offer museums interesting interpretive angles. You could focus on foodstuffs themselves: on their production and consumption (including the biological, economic, social and political impact of food). Alternatively, you can use aliment as a sub-theme to add richness to your interpretative narratives. For example, the history of slavery is incomplete without reference to sugar. The bitter effect of the lucrative sugar trade was that Europeans enslaved millions of Africans as an ‘endless’ supply of labour for sugar plantations. The history of Europe’s sugar obsession is therefore one of brutality, power inequalities and colonialism. Seemingly mundane foodstuffs thus enrich museum interpretation. Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery explored food heritage in their ‘Knights of the Raj’ exhibition. The exhibition outlined the cultural legacy of Bangladeshi Indian restaurant owners in Birmingham and the wider ‘curry culture’ in the UK. Text panels featuring images of curry, restaurant furniture, interactive displays and oral histories facilitated the interpretation that shows how museums can explore food and drink in connection to wider, socially pertinent themes such as immigration, multiculturalism and cultural identity.

Engaging the senses


The benefits of sensory engagement in museums are multiple. Not only can the senses enhance visitors’ meaning making by adding a dimension of realism and engagement to their experience, but they can also aid memories of the visit: olfactory memory, in particular, is strong and long lasting. Where possible, you can get creative about engaging your visitors’ senses in connection with food and drink collections. The British Museum of Food, designed by sensory geniuses Bompass and Parr, offers a total sensory experience and show-stopping exhibitions. This summer, the museum’s ‘Scoop: A Wonderful Ice Cream World’ exhibition takes visitors upon a sensory journey to explore the history of everyone’s favourite frozen treat. Of course, it is neither possible nor practical for many museums to stage blockbuster exhibitions that engage all five senses. Smaller museums could take lead from Chesterfield Museum & Art Gallery. This local authority museum interpreted the economic and social impact of the brewing and mineral water industries on Chesterfield in its ‘Chesterfield on Tap’ exhibition earlier this year. The museum engaged its visitors’ senses in a small-scale, budget friendly yet effective way: they invited visitors to smell the ingredients used in brewing, which were set beside the exhibition in jars.

Museums of all sizes can incorporate food and drink into their interpretation. In doing so, the museum stands to highlight important yet often overlooked areas of history, to enhance visitor learning opportunities, and to explore modern social issues through an historical lens.

If you would like to show off your food and drink collections, you can hire our ‘Food & Drink’ temporary exhibition. It includes 14 text panels that we will send to you digitally. It’s like the ready-meal of exhibitions – but better quality of course! For more information, see our Temporary Exhibition Service webpage or contact Hollie Davison on 07929215264 or hollie@culturesyndicates.co.uk.

By Natasha Clegg, Projects Officer for Culture Syndicates


Levent, N. and Mihalache, I. D. (2017), Food and Museums, Bloomsbury: London.

Mitz, S. (1985), Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, Penguin Books: London.

Moon, Michelle (2015), Interpreting Food at Museums and Historic Sites, Rowman and Littlefield: London.

Thirsk, J. (2006), Food in Early Modern England: Phases, Fads, Fashions 1500-1760, Continuum Books: London.

http://www.birminghammuseums.org.uk/bmag/whats-on/knights-of-the-raj (Accessed 24th July 2018).

https://www.bmof.org/ (Accessed 24th July 2018).

https://www.chesterfield.co.uk/events/chesterfield-on-tap/ (Accessed 24th July 2018).

https://www.mofad.org/chowexhibition (Accessed 24th July 2018).

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