Experiential food museums leave a sour taste in my mouth
And why you should approach them with caution
Museums are very rarely interactive. They are perhaps best described by the whispered instruction of parents – the hushed half-prayer: “Look, don’t touch.” They are not designed to physically engage with the museum goer. You walk, you look, you leave. It’s a formula that works with most mediums but is wholly insufficient when it comes to food. Food is, inherently, a multi-sensory experience, of which seeing is only one part. This is where the food museum comes in. At its heart it is a wonderful concept, in which you are encouraged to interact with exhibits in a much more immersive way, to touch, to smell and to taste.Neither restaurant nor traditional exhibition, these unconventional “museums” are popping up everywhere. In Europe, the Agropolis museum in France is the most comprehensive food museum on the continent, dedicated to describing the global history of people through food and agriculture. Arguably its counterpart is the MoFAD (the museum of food and drink), a comprehensive and thoughtful collection of food-based exhibits exploring US culinary history. Then there are single-subject museums, which are more lighthearted. Should you be interested, you can now visit the Currywurst museum in Berlin, or the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum in Japan.There are many others: a chocolate museum in Belgium, a bread museum in Germany. What unites them is that these spaces have interactive food-based exhibits which explore not only the pleasures of eating but also tackle the enormously complex and intentionally opaque world of food production and distribution.Regarding this concept, as is so often the case with food, there is a lot of junk out there too. An entire set of “experiential marketing campaigns” has emerged. These campaigns attempt to legitimise themselves by adding the word “museum” to the end. Merriam-Webster defines a museum as a “an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study and display of objects of lasting interest or value”. Missing from this definition, but crucial, is the inherent understanding that they are also, as far as possible, unbiased. This is not the case with morally vacant schemes hatched up by corporations to create a lifestyle out of their brand.
The result? A variety of unbearably Instagrammable places, including the saccharine Kelloggs café, the Museum of Candy, the Jell-O gallery and the museum of Ice Cream.Coming later this year is the MoPi, the museum of pizza. All of which are for-profit institutions selling the chance to pad out your social media. What they do not include is any context on the production of their products, the history of the food in question, a glimpse into the ecological cost of the Western diet, or any nutritional guidelines or statistics. No mention of the distressing realities of dairy production, or the associated risks of a diet high in sugar. No mention of the global obesity epidemic which is arguably the most visible and yet most neglected public health problem. All of which form part of the complicated food history of cereal, sugary sweets, ice cream and pizza.