Thursday, 2 March 2017

EATING THE CITY: MOHAI IN SEATTLE, WA

A MUSE BOUCHE

BY: ERIKA ROBERTSON

Look, the logo even has a little spoon! Photo by Erika Robertson







I’ve been looking forward to talking about MOHAI’s temporary exhibition, Edible City, for months. MOHAI is a unique Seattle institution located in a beautiful park on South Lake Union. This exhibit about the city's food industry fit perfectly within the museum’s mandate. In fact, it’s in the title: Museum Of History And Industry. My friend Emily and I spent hours exploring the galleries, only stopping because we were hungry!

But wait, what's this? We're here to talk about food, but there's "no food or drink." Again conservation efforts clash with interpretive goals. Photo by Erika Robertson.

The exhibit began by locating the subject of food within the museum’s vision of innovation and diversity. Introductory panels and videos seem to claim ‘this is Seattle.’ When a video of Valerie Segrest, a member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, discussed the importance of food sovereignty, it was rooted in both historical and contemporary issues. The Big Idea situated Seattle's cuisine as young and multicultural while staying true to local ingredients.

Looks like food won: this jacket is made from used hamburger wrappers with real French fries! I wonder how collections staff handle that challenge. By artist Dorothy Rissman. Photo by Erika Robertson.

My only critique is that the celebratory tone could have been more critical by addressing current issues that directly impact the museum’s audiences. According to the National Restaurant Association, 10% of America’s workforce is in the restaurant industry. That's 14.7 million employees. This labour, often performed by immigrants, is vital to Seattle's culture. It’s also undervalued, as shown by the resistance to a $15 minimum wage in Seattle. (For a time, I was one of those workers. It's not glamorous, but I wouldn't call it a low-skill job). That’s an example of a critical conversation that museums could facilitate.

The exhibit gives an overview of the food industry within a historical context: from harvesting and foraging, through processing, to serving. Considering how much ground it covers, Edible City has surprising depth through interactive elements. The online component offers many ways to become more informed and involved in food issues. Emily and I were both excited to make the “signature recipes” later. She loves to bake while I’m more into vegetables, and we both found recipes we wanted to try.


Emily enjoys her tomato soup and "South Lake Grilled Cheese." Photo by Erika Robertson.

After several hours, rumbling stomachs pulled Emily and I out of Edible City and into the South Lake Café. Like the exhibit, its menu celebrated local flavours with all their international influences. I couldn’t resist Tim’s thick-cut jalapeño potato chips, which brought me back to lunches shared with my mom when I was little. The café also features locally roasted espresso and beer from Pike Place and Fremont breweries (two of my favourites, incidentally).


What's "Cascade style" about jalepeño chips? Who cares, they're delicious. Photo by Erika Robertson.

In short, MOHAI’s Edible City hits the Venn diagram of my interests: Pacific Northwest, food, and museums. As LeVar Burton says, “but you don’t take my word for it.” Next week you’ll be able to hear what the hilarious hosts of Spilled Milk Podcast think of it.

Have you worked in the food industry? How would you like to see those experiences discussed in museums?

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