Two new food museums encourage "thoughtful participation in the food system"by Alice Lascelles / February 18, 2016 / Leave a comment
Food can feed the brain as well as the belly. It can be a cultural signifier, a political tool and route to scientific revelation. Yet we’ve become, by all accounts, a nation of unthinking, insipid “foodies”, where cookbooks top bestseller lists, baking shows pack out primetime TV schedules, and restaurant launches gobble up column inches, cramming Instagram’s maw with endless, oozing burger-porn.
Two new food museums—one on either side of the Atlantic—are aiming to temper all this snortling greed. Food museums are not new: there’s a prune museum in France, a kimchee one in Korea, and at least half a dozen dedicated to the potato. But until now there hasn’t been an institution dedicated permanently to the exploration of ideas around food.
A youthful pair of gastro-wizards known as Bompas & Parr, have attempted to fill this gap in the market. They are best-known for staging headline-grabbing spectaculars, and creating curios such as breathable G&Ts, lava-powered barbecues and bowls-full of punch big enough to row a boat on. And last year, in a former banana-ripening house in Borough Market, they set up the British Museum of Food. The museum involves next to no eating. Instead the building is given over to a series of installations relating to the science, politics and production of food.
The first of the four rooms houses a giant video screen depicting a journey through the human gut, which visitors watch while being subjected to the “peristalsis” of ruthless massage chairs. Elsewhere, one can explore the impact of sound on flavour perception by tasting four, identical, chocolate drops to different soundtracks, and wander through a lush hothouse full of butterflies while learning about the role of endangered pollinators in the food chain.
In the fourth and final room, a small archive of menus brought things to a thought-provoking close by juxtaposing the extravagant—the last menu to be served on Concorde—and mundane—a week’s menu in a prison canteen—with the heartrending—a hand-drawn Christmas day menu from a Second World War POW camp. Displayed alongside each other in a series of plain glass cases, these menus served as a powerful reminder that food, in all its forms, can represent far more than simple sustenance.
The first incarnation of the museum closed in late January, but Bompas & Parr are on the hunt for funding to open something more permanent by the end of 2016. “In the long term our aim is to help inform food policy and education,” says Sam Bompas. Indeed in November, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs used the museum to launch its Great Food Nation initiative.
Within days of BMOF opening in London, New York also saw the launch of the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) in Brooklyn, a rather more heavyweight affair headed up by culinary pioneer Dave Arnold and backed by a board of luminaries from the worlds of cookery, agriculture, marketing and tech.
At MOFAD, an on-site lab means there’s more opportunity to get stuck into actual cooking and eating, but there’s still plenty of brain-food, with exhibits on the history of artificial ingredients, the socio-economic impact of the coffee trade and the role of pH in gastronomy.
“MOFAD’s approach is to present an unbiased, fact-based approach to food, and empower people to be able to properly assess dogmatic arguments, marketing claims, health fads, and the like,” says executive director Peter J Kim. “Our hope is to help lead a larger shift toward more thoughtful (and enjoyable) participation in the food system.”
The great paradox which underlies all of this is that our fascination with food is, increasingly, only matched by how messed up we are about it. We know more about nutrition, and have access to better food than ever before, and yet we’re also beset by fad diets, eating disorders and fast-rising rates of obesity.
In her book The First Bite, the food writer and historian Bee Wilson uses a mixture of science, sociology, food writing and anecdote to stirs up deceptively simple questions. What is hunger? Why do we eat sugar when we celebrate? How do we know what to eat? And, just as importantly, when to stop? In the course of her masterful enquiry into our eating habits, Wilson arrives at an unexpected conclusion: that by thinking about food, and our attitudes to it, in a bit more depth, we might actually enjoy it more—and in the process, eat a little bit less.