Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A New Year's Toast: Let Us Begin

Greetings all, and thanks to Cathy, our host at History at the Table. I'm delighted to be the first guest blogger in our discussion of public history and the local food movement, which will of course culminate in our Working Group meeting at the NCPH 2013 meeting in April. This will be the first of many posts on this intersection in coming weeks, as each member of the Working Group takes a turn offering insights and questions. Knowing that the conversation to follow will be lively and provocative, I raise a metaphorical glass to all present and say "Let us begin."

I'll be speaking from personal experience first, describing how my work at one museum led me into the local food movement, and then making the case more generally for a strategic re-evaluation of food interpretation in museums.

How One Museum Got Slower

In 2004 I became education director at a historic site and museum called Strawbery Banke,  a preserved urban neighborhood in Portsmouth, NH. Its more than 20 restored houses (with associated period landscapes) feature a mix of traditional interpretive strategies - first person roleplaying, didactic displays, period rooms, guided programs. 

Like many such sites, we faced the challenge of maintaining audience attendance in a time of widespread decline. With tongue only partly in cheek, Cary Carson, chief researcher at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, predicted "the end of history museums" in 2008, noting that attendance has been sinking for three straight decades . Reach Advisers found that history museums,
compared with 7 other museum genres, ranked lowest in popularity with all demographic groups. Only 31% of family museum visitors even venture to historic sites.

What could we do to forge new connections with potential participants? We didn't have to look far for inspiration. The local food movement was blossoming around us.
A 30-year-old farmers market was suddenly teeming with new, young farmers. A grassroots locavore group sprang up, helping people find locally produced food. Ideas of reviving localism infused the business community with 'buy local' campaigns creating new interdependent relationships.

In this cutting-edge movement, the museum could contribute unique, localized content drawin on a rich past. Evidence from milennia of food production, cooking, and eating was visible on (and in) the land. Audiences were clamoring for content the museum had to share: local climate, seed, and soil knowledge; regionally adapted strategies for food cultivation, preparation, and preservation; personal histories of migration and its impact on the foodscape; detail on the mechanics of earlier farm-market and import economies. 

Our interpretive leadership team began to engage allies in the community. We established a Slow Food chapter, inviting the membership to meet monthly at the Museum to taste and learn from its kitchens, gardens and orchards. We collaborated on community food festivals, hosted a CSA information fair, brought in topical speakers. Slowly we built a community of local supporters who otherwise might not have valued our site as anything other than a quaint place to bring out-of-town guests. 

As folklorist Millie Rahn observes, there is often "no model, and usually no precedent," for previously unconnected members of a community to begin talking to one another. Forging bonds with the local food community required new behaviors and new relationships on the part of our staff. We hit the streets and fields, having long one-on-one conversations about mutual goals and ideas at Saturday morning farmer's markets, evening potlucks, in produce markets and pubs. We approached potential partners in a spirit of openness, letting plans emerge from mutual goals rather than orchestrating every outcome. We worked around, and through, institutional and external obstacles to collaboration. It was all up close and personal. Local food networks are known for increasing intimacy among constituents, and our museum was no exception. We became engaged at a personal as well as institutional level, and began making change.

Two Roads Diverged

Stepping back from the Strawbery Banke example to take a broader view, I've been wondering how historic sites and museums have been rendered nearly invisible as resources for community exchange and learning around local food, despite intense interest on the part of the public in the subject matter we steward.

In part, we can blame ourselves. Past choices in food interpretation, though well-intentioned, do not resonate with the public as currently relevant. Food is often assigned a supporting role, viewed as a hook to get visitors interested in the "real history," rather than as a topic in and of itself. It's served as a sensory detail to add ambience, animate domestic interiors, and provide demonstration content for (usually female) indoor interpreters. The focus is typically on ingredients, equipment and methods, perhaps a bit of medicinal or seasonal lore. Buried in minutiae, obsessed with creating the illusion of a living past, and often skewed for popular appeal, food presentations have failed to illuminate significant (and ongoing) historical concerns: economic structures, food justice issues, supply and labor chains, competing and contentious cultural expressions, relationships with technology, and the mechanisms of change.

How did we end up with this disconnect between the way we present food in museums and the way we discuss it in contemporary society? The answer may lie in an inherited philosophical rift between museum practitioners and academic historians. Food h
istorian Ken Albala identifies two distinct approaches: food history, rooted in late-20th-century social history scholarship, deals with the "social, economic, intellectual, and cultural parameters of consumption,” while culinary history focuses narrowly on the specificities of "ingredients, cooking methods, recipes, and the history of the cookbook, often accompanied by the reconstruction of historic cooking in situ." 

Culinary history has been, by default, the dominant approach in museums. Predating the social history revolution of the 60s and 70s, it reflects gendered ideas of food as a trivial topic, falling outside the range of serious theoretical study. In museums around the country, biscuits brown, butter is churned, and salt cod soaks, while interpreters in homespun garments sweep the hearth in an eternally recreated Wallace Nutting picture. Academic historians, Albala says, resisted this "hands-on approach" because "the physical act of cooking was considered more appropriate for antiquarians than professional historians. This bifurcation has had longlasting effects, namely that food history often neglects the kitchen, while culinary history often ignores the rigorous methods…used by food historians.”

The culinary history approach to food interpretation can be problematic, degrading into a shallow form of interactivity without larger purpose. It can invite othering views of past people as bizarre or unsophisticated, especially when the emphasis is on the strangeness of ethnic and archaic tastes or the deprivations of hardship. It risks transferring simplistic, feel-good stereotypes of "Back Then," the time when "They" raised their own food, always ate wholesomely, wasted nothing, and were happy with little. It is often content with creating a "sense" of time and place, reducing historical forces, painful and exciting changes, and varied individual responses to a set of smells, tastes, and accessories.

Reimagining Food Interpretation

What if museums became sites for reuniting food studies with culinary history? This could be an interpretive revolution, deepening and broadening investigations of the past, while connecting to a mighty engine of contemporary relevance. 

Public history sites are well-equipped to present a new, integrated approach to food interpretation grounded in scholarship, dealing in nuance and complexity,and linked to big, vital ideas. As always, they can share know-how by teaching methods and practices offering immediate utility, like seed saving or apple drying; but they could also introduce analogues and comparative episodes from the past to help participants understand change, contributing to solutions that avoid past pitfalls and fit contemporary constraints. They could be present-oriented, moving beyond nostalgia and set-dressing and delving into history as a useful tool for living and solving complex community problems.

History institutions ignore the food movement to their own detriment. Starving to death at a banquet, they scramble for crumbs of participation and support, while the public stampedes by the front gates by on the way to to the farmer's market, the community garden, the crop-mob, or the harvest festival, all the time seeking connection, information and practical skill which could be gained on our sites. Food producers and consumers miss out on the depth of content and historical framing public history could supply. We have a great deal to share with one another, and, if we accept it, a central role to play that fulfills our public educational mission and cements our bonds to our communities. If we begin by re-imagining our institutional relationships with food, bringing food topics into serious investigation that considers present-day issues while exampling the past, we can feast together with new constituencies in stronger communities.

It could just save our bacon.

What are your observations about food interpretation at museums and public history sites? Do you agree that there is a schism between the social history of food and the technical focus of the culinary demonstration? Do we need to re-imagine food interpretation as part of an effort to conduct dialogue on contemporary food issues?

1 comment:

  1. I'm starting back at the beginning here by re-reading your inaugural post, Michelle, and am struck once again by your phrase "re-imagining our institutional relationships." To me, this is one real crux of the matter: i.e. public historical institutions and sites operate within an existing set of relationships, including with funders, stakeholders, and particular kinds of audiences and constituents, and it's often very difficult to move beyond or outside of those. Given how busy, under-funded, and over-stressed most staff are at historical institutions, it seems like we need to be very clear about this aspect of change, in terms of spelling out the very real work it would take to make it happen as well as the very real benefits.

    You talk about the "new behaviors and new relationships on the part of our staff" that were required for Strawbery Banke to engage with the local food realm, and I think that's a very fruitful (gad, I wish we could get away from these food puns, but they seem inescapable!) point to explore more fully. Can you say more about what it took to make those changes? Was there any initial resistance?