Saturday, 1 February 2014

PROFESSOR IRINA MIHALACHE: BREAD AND THE MUSEUM

Last April, my sister and I decided to take a much deserved trip to San Francisco.  We wined, dined, walked (on very steep roads) and of course made our way to as many museums as we could.  We visited the Museum of Modern Art, the Natural History Museum, the de Young Museum and even the Beat Museum but the one that stayed with me for reasons which will very soon be obvious is the Boudin Bakery Museum (Boudin Bakery is a SF landmark known particularly for their sourdough breads).  If you have been to SF, you probably made it to Fisherman’s Wharf, and probably, just like me, complained extensively about its extreme consumerist and simulacra-like aesthetics and feel.  Nonetheless, in that hyper-touristy, rather smelly (yeap, those seals are cute, but cuteness comes with a price!) and kitschy environment I lived one of my most memorable museological experiences.  

Museum sign http://kathryngeraghty.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/
an-historic-walk-through-fishermans-wharf-in-san-francisco/
  

Like many other people, we entered the Boudin Bakery because of the sweet, savory and mesmerizing sourdough aroma.  Once inside, we noticed, at the top of the staircase which led visitors to the second floor restaurant, a sign towards a space labeled Boudin Museum & Bakery Tour.  Not expecting much, we entered the room and were welcomed by a most complementary pairing of objects, texts and, most importantly, smell and taste.  The museum tells the story of the Boudin family, who immigrated to the US from Burgundy, France during the Gold Rush, bringing along bread baking techniques from Europe.  Since 1849, when the bakery opened in San Francisco, the same “mother dough” has been used in all its baked sourdough breads.  Besides my own personal fascination with bread, the incredible smell of fresh baked goodness (I did not mention yet that the museum is situated on top of the baking kitchen) and the various bread samples to taste throughout the museum, the space is probably the most interactive I have ever seen in a small museum.  

History of the Boudin family hallway/entrance to the museum
http://www.boudinbakery.com/Museum/Bakery_Tour

The museum is a proof (no pun intended – ha!) that there is no requirement for the use of fancy technology in order for visitors to engage with museum objects, the space itself and the various sensorial cues.  For example, the visitor finds out that at the turn of the century, Boudin was delivering French sourdough baguettes to private residence by hammering the baguette into a nail located on the outside door of the home.  In the museum, the visitors can pin a baguette to a door, relive the historic experience and also think at the ways in which we purchase bread in our own times.  In another part of the museums, visitors can learn about the different types of Boudin breads by opening small wooden doors and tasting certain types of bread.  And of course, at the end of the visit, travellers can take a peek into the kitchen and buy some bread on their way out.  

Boudin Bakery bread delivery cart 


Despite the location of the museum on the second floor of a bakery (so a commercial institution), the work and research put into crafting history through moments of engagement with objects, smells and tastes is obvious throughout  the museum.  Many museums struggle with creating meaningful experiences – often, the answer is in the simplicity and diversity of engagement strategies.  And, of course, the smell and taste of sourdough bread helps! 

2 comments:

  1. Talk about an immersive museum experience! Not to mention a genius marketing tool, using the glorious smell of freshly baked sourdough to lure in potential shop customers who may then become museum goers! Perhaps all museums should have bakeries attached to them ;)

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  2. Thanks, Irina, fantastic post. Because bread is such a foundational aspect of so many cultures around the world (Germany tried -- and failed -- to add pumpernickel bread to the list of intangible cultural heritage), I can see how a bread museum can be accessible for many different kinds of visitors. And San Francisco's special history with bread/sourdough is a perfect starting point for ruminating on the powerful connotations of "breaking bread" and building communities on bread. I have heard that in the 1906 earthquake/fire, bakers were desperately saving the lives of their sourdough starters -- and the smell of baking bread (among other more gruesome things) pervaded the city during the catastrophe. This may be a myth -- but hey, it could be argued that myths and heritage are often closely intertwined...

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