Wednesday, 18 May 2016




Welcome to my new column exploring the intersection of food and museums! I’ll take a moment to explain my experiment. Museums and food have had a contentious relationship; exhibitions typically begin with signs like this:
Please respect the signs. Photo by Erika Robertson.
Curators and collections managers are protecting artifacts from ice cream fingerprints and the ants that follow. Yet in some ways, food belongs in museums because eating is a universal, and yet intensely cultural, personal, and emotional part of life. Many artifacts begin life as everyday tools for preparing, eating, or serving food. We can’t forget that museum audiences also need sustenance to absorb all those cultural experiences.

So it makes sense that museum folks are taking an interest in foodways. This emerging field brings together farmers, chefs, and people who eat to ask questions such as:
  •       Who’s working in the kitchen?
  •       Who’s around the table?
  •       What’s being served? Source.

My take on these questions will involve a lot of travel. This summer, follow me as I eat my way through museums in California, Washington, and British Columbia. This first article is an overview of some ways in which food influences interpretation, but later stories will explore an issue (or a meal) in greater depth.

This month I visited my little sister, Miranda, at Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, California. The park includes botanical gardens, a museum, and Paul Bunyan’s Forest Camp. The little zoo specialized in native species, such as the turtles that give the area its name. Most importantly, they have a Coffee Bar!

 Museum, aquarium, coffee? Someone has their priorities right. Photo by Erika Robertson.
My exploration began in the permanent history exhibition, where I was surprised to find... food! The display asked me to pack supplies I would need for a gold panning expedition. The text reminds visitors, “How are you going to cook your food? How are you going to eat it?” The exhibit brought back happy hours spent playing Oregon Trail as a kid.

I don’t remember whiskey as an option back then.... Photo by Erika Robertson.
After touring the museum, I headed outside to Paul Bunyan’s Forest Camp, where Miranda and her fellow trainers were rehearsing their summer performance. According to my sister, the animals displayed their natural behaviors on cue because they expect a tasty reward. Of course these behaviours were all about finding food, a drive Homo sapiens share with all species.

That's my sister! Did you know bobcats jump to catch birds out of the air? Photo by Erika Robertson.
Watching the animals eat gave me an appetite, so I circled back to the coffee shop. As I munched on my turkey sub, I wondered about the relationship between food sales and Turtle Bay’s mission: “To inspire wonder, exploration, and appreciation of our world” (source). Some products are advertized as local or environmentally friendly, but I didn’t see a consistent message between retail, museum exhibitions, and Paul Bunyan Forest Camp.

Cute, but is it relevant? Photo by Erika Robertson.
Poking into Turtle Bay’s operations confirmed my theory: as an independent non-profit, sales of food, drinks, and merchandise account for 17% of their operating budget (source). Following the global financial crisis, the City of Redding removed their support in 2010 (source).The institution’s goal to “strengthen our financial stability” may mean remodelling the cafe (source).

So can I feel good about my food dollars helping Turtle Bay feed its animals, pay their staff, and expand? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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