13 November 2017




How far do the limits of interpretation stretch? In virtually every museum in the world, we see art, artifacts, and specimens interpreted into text to help the visitor understand and connect to them. Over time, and especially after the advent of digital media, interpretation has expanded; we can now expect multimedia interpretives like audio tours, videos, and apps in addition to the ubiquitous wall label. Most of these strategies are basically linguistic and visual, depending on words, images, and perhaps sounds to aid understanding.

Interpretation designed for visitors with disabilities might be experienced primarily through other senses; for example, reproductions of paintings which visitors can touch to understand the painter’s brushstrokes. These strategies also benefit visitors who can see: the more senses we can use to experience something, the better an understanding we can form.

Feeling Van Gogh, a touchable (and smellable) interpretive display designed for visitors with visual impairments, at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Source. 

Our senses of scent and taste, however, are underused in museum interpretation, often for perfectly good reasons. There are conservation issues involved in bringing food into museum spaces, and many visitors cannot or would prefer not to experience strong, evocative smells in the gallery. For the adventurous, though, food-as-interpretation might be the next frontier of museum experience.

Jared Goodman interprets art into ice cream sundaes as the Culinary Artist in Residence at the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Oregon, where he designs and hosts a public programming initiative titled ‘Edible Art History’. The residency grew out of the Morgan Street Theatre, the ‘dessert theatre’ ice cream pop-up he runs out of his home. At Morgan Street Theatre events, guests experience ice cream and storytelling at communal tables; the intention is to foster social connection and conversation. The menus are chosen with intent: a course at Goodman’s Dr. Seuss-themed ice cream social drew attention to foods endangered by climate change like pecans, bananas, and chocolate. His yearly Passover seder re-imagines the symbolic foods of the traditional seder as sundaes.

Goodman carried this format over to the Edible Art History programming at the Portland Art Museum. Previously, themes have included A Taste of American Art, A Taste of the 1970s, and 20th Century Abstraction. For each event, Goodman selects three pieces in the museum’s collection and creates an ice cream sundae based on each one. (The sundae form, he explains, is well-suited for the job because it allows for a combination of flavours and textures). The choice of flavours is based on the pieces’ “aesthetic, history, and social context”. At the event, Goodman and visitors are joined in conversation by a museum curator.
Left: City Perspectives (1932) by Raymond Johnson, Portland Art Museum. Right, Jared Goodman's interpretation, a sundae composed of passion fruit ice cream, salted brownie, olive oil, and raspberry shrub. Source.

The interpretations aren’t straightforward visual recreations of each work into edible form, but are inspired by single notes: an element of the work’s history, or a feeling it evokes, might determine the flavour or texture of a sundae. An ingredient local to the setting of a painting, or popular at the time of its creation, might figure into the recipe. Like label writing, tour planning, or any other kind of interpretation, this interpretive strategy must be selective: which aspects of the piece are most interesting or important? Too much information, and you risk overwhelming the visitor; too little, and they’ll walk away without an understanding of the piece.

It’s difficult to get a full sense of Goodman’s interpretive process from the limited information abut the Edible Art History program online (to my knowledge, there are no reviews available, so many of the ice cream/art pairings remain tantalizingly unavailable), but it seems to be grounded in the same principles as most other interpretation: research, critical thought, and a desire to make art personal to the visitor. In a feature by Oregon Public Broadcasting, he examines Helen Frankenthaler’s painting Spaced-Out Orbit. “So how do you get from this to ice cream? Well, the thing that I’ve been thinking about most is this idea of restraint and this idea of intention,” he explains. 

That’s a complex idea for any interpretation to express, let alone in the medium of cream and sugar. I’m struck by the subject matter of previous Edible Art History events: 1970s art and abstraction could be inaccessible and off-putting to visitors without a grounding in art history, but a three-course ice cream tasting probably makes them more palatable.

Helen Frankenthaler, Spaced Out Orbit (1973). Acrylic on canvas. Portland Art Museum. Source.

It’s easy to imagine this idea – local man makes art into ice cream! – as a gimmick designed purely to attract visitors and media attention, where interpretive practice is sacrificed for feel-good, Instagrammable novelty. I’ve suspended my cynicism in this case (besides, this man has my dream job). Goodman and his surprisingly complex sundaes evoke Tilden’s fifth principle of interpretation: “Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts…” When rigorously and thoughtfully applied, the culinary arts can be as provocative and revelatory as in-person or written interpretation, if not more so.

Perhaps, to paraphrase the famous maxim, writing about making ice cream about art is like dancing about architecture, but I put it to you that an interpretive dance about architecture would be amazing, and I have similarly warm feelings about responsible ice-cream based interpretation.

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