Wednesday, 5 April 2017

SO YOU WANT TO BRING FOOD INTO THE MUSEUM

A MUSE BOUCHE

BY: ERIKA ROBERTSON

If this column has been successful, I've convinced you that food is an exciting, emerging topic in the museum world. Before you turn your exhibit into the Museum of Ice Cream, I want to leave you with a few pros and cons. Food is a serious conservation concern for collections, but you can use food connections outside the exhibit space as a revenue stream and to connect with audiences.

 
Sprinkle pool, shudder. Source.

Once you start seeing through the lens of food, the connections are everywhere. The introduction to Levent and Mihalache's new book, Food and Museums (2017) states that “museums are looking into their collections for food objects, refocusing institutional mandates and curatorial practice to craft narratives through food”(p. 1).  If that isn't convincing, check out Elsa Vogts' challenging approach to the edible museum. Food is everywhere.

However, museum professionals need to be thoughtful about the risks such experiments present to  collections. For example, acidic wines pose a chemical threat to objects: it can stain or cause metals to degrade. Even the soda isn't splashed directly on the painting, it can still attract pests like ants and mice, that will leave a trail of artifact dust behind. Those "No Food or Drinks" signs are serious preventative conservation policies. The collections manager is trying to protect material culture for future generations. When they put their foot down, don't despair! Moving the edible components out of the galleries is an opportunity for new audiences and revenue.

 Cringing intensifies. Source.

 For my last article as a Musings contributor, I interviewed Shanlon Gilbert and Brenna Pladsen about their recent exhibition project fundraiser. Their mobile app about the Halifax Explosion is "exploding the museum," to steal Shanlon's pun. So it's fitting that their fundraiser took their project beyond museum walls. Selling garlic fingers with donair sauce raised revenue and created opportunities to talk to publics about their project. But I'll let them tell you.
Brenna kneads the dough for garlic fingers. Photo credit: Shanlon Gilbert

Can you briefly describe your exhibition project for those who aren’t familiar with it?
We are working on a mobile app about the Halifax Explosion called “Echoes of the Explosion.” Shanlon has created six composite characters using archival sources, news clippings, and oral histories. Each character represents different communities in Halifax at the time in order to provide a more complex view of the disaster. Brenna has created portraits and colour schemes for the characters, and designed the look and feel of the app. The characters take users on a walk through downtown Halifax, gradually remembering the events of December 6th, 1917. The audio experience is expanded on by archival materials and extra information in “footnotes” on-screen.
Why did you choose to make garlic fingers and donair sauce?
Brenna: Garlic fingers and donair sauce is a nostalgic dish for many Haligonians. It’s a traditional comfort food for a late night and we hoped to tap into fond remembrances from any transplants or King’s/Dalhousie grads. And it worked!
Shanlon: One woman was so happy to see garlic fingers she was almost in tears. We met a few Nova Scotians through the garlic finger fundraiser!
Brenna: Also, given that all the other bake sales have been primarily sweets (cakes, cookies, etc.) we thought it would be a nice change to have something savoury.
Shanlon: And garlic fingers are much easier to make than donair.
Did you reach your funding goals?
Brenna: We had a very successful recipe card sale during Christmas. The recipes were all traditional maritime holiday dishes, and cards are 100% gluten-free and vegan, so they sold well.
Shanlon: The cards are gluten-free and vegan, not the recipes--although you could alter most of them to be. Maybe not rappie pie though…
Brenna: In comparison, anything looks lackluster. All of this is to say we weren’t sure how well the garlic fingers would go over so we aimed to cover costs of the ingredients and some misc. costs we’d accrued. We hit that goal and exceeded it! We can’t thank the extra generous people that helped us get there enough.
What parts were challenging?
Brenna: Turns out that a very very garlicy food was not the best item to try and sell right before class. We got the impression that people didn’t want to bring such an odorous food into the classroom. Also, given how regional it is, we did have to explain what garlic fingers are.
Shanlon: The snowy weather that day didn’t help either. And some people were lactose intolerant or gluten-free and couldn’t have them even if they wanted. The were fun to make, although it took a while as we only had one pizza pan. And Brenna had to put up with me singing maritimey songs the whole time.
Garlic fingers, ready for tasting. (They were delicious.) Photo credit: Brenna Pladsen
 Would you recommend this strategy to future exhibition project teams?
Brenna: There is also a food culture in Nova Scotia that maps well onto our context; buttery, fatty, and salty carbs have a wide appeal.
Shanlon: It’s cold out there. You need food that sticks to your ribs. Mostly potatoes and fish.
Brenna: More importantly our project revolves around emotional connections. Sound and food are both mediums that connect people emotionally, so it made sense to use food to fundraise. Our garlic finger sale also worked as a PR tool. Apparently donair sauce brings all the Maritimers out of the woodwork, and hopefully they’re remember us when they’re back on the East Coast.
Shanlon: So we can’t specifically recommend garlic fingers to future projects, but food certainly has powerful affective associations to leverage. I would caution that food is a difficult fundraiser to coordinate, to deliver safely, and can be difficult because there are so many allergies and sensitivities to be aware of. If you’re going to fundraise with food be sure it’s connected to your project in a significant way.
Any key lessons if you were to do this again?
Brenna:
  1. Don’t forget to factor in leftovers when costing, there will be leftovers. (I has ~ 1/3 of the leftover garlic fingers in my freezer, although they are rapidly immigrating to my stomach).
  2. Advertise when/what you’re doing online and onsite. We more aggressively promoted the cards on campus and in our networks and saw much better returns.
I will help you with those leftovers, Brenna. Source.
Shanlon:
  1. Arrange with profs to make class visits with your food if you can. The lobby is busy but mostly people just want to get to the elevators/class. Plus the middle of class is when people get hungry and tired and their willpower is depleted…
  2. Don’t be afraid to sell to people! A lot of people didn’t know what garlic fingers are and responded positively when we greeted them and told them stories about garlic fingers and late nights at pizza corner or on the Commons. 
If you're in Halifax this summer, I hope you listen to the incredible "Echoes of the Explosion." It's been a treat to see this project develop.
Thus concludes my last article for Musings. It has been an honour to associate with my fellow contributors and museum professionals. I hope to keep in touch as the Masters of Museum Studies class of 2017 moves from the iSchool into the world! Look for me in the Seattle, where I will keep snacking my way through all the incredible museums.

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