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Teach the Past and Eat it Too

Colonial Williamsburg interpreters roast a pig. Virginia Gazette photo.

Food is one of the defining issues of our times. It’s also one of the hottest interests of our visitors. At AASLH 2012, I chaired a session titled  From Sustenance to Relevance: Reinterpreting Food, Place, and Local History. Our aim was to open up the conversation on the links between local food and local history.

Unless you’ve been subsisting on saltines, you’ve probably been involved  in the discussion America’s food supply, and its security, quality, and sustainability. Perhaps you’re joining the 2/3 of all Americans who consider sustainability when they buy food, or the 41% who seek out locally grown food. Much of that comes from  farmers markets, at which 39% of us do some shopping; markets have multiplied more than fourfold in the last 20 years. You’re likely to be among the 78% of people who buy some organic foods, and you might even be in the roughly 30% of households growing food in a home garden.What does this mean for history museums? If we’re good historians, educators and interpreters, a lot. First, it’s  a topic of very high relevance for our audiences. We’re all too aware of the struggles of history museums to maintain audience share  over the past few decades. Many have speculated that’s at least partly because we haven’t drawn clear connections to topics of relevance to audiences. We’ve let a gulf develop between what happens on our sites and what happens in American lives, becoming islands of information oddly unconnected to the communities of people who would find that information valuable.

Heirloom carrots can look different from their grocery store relatives!

Second, food just happens to be a topic in which historic sites excel. In our collections are almanacs and seed catalogs and herbariums, kitchen equipment and patent farm machinery. Our interpretive programs offer food demonstrations and seasonal events, supported by primary research on food preservation, sourcing and historic recipes. Our sites are home to recreated gardens and farm fields, period kitchens and livestock barns, cider presses and springhouses. Chances are good that if  human beings lived and worked on your site in the past, they left behind is a fascinating food history.

We’re being given a warm invitation by our visitors to pull up a chair and tuck into the conversation about food. If we accept, we’ll no longer  treat food as a historical side dish supporting other topic – but as a main course on the interpretive menu.

In the AASLH 2012 session, three presenters and an energized audience started talking about ways to re-connect museums to the topic of food. Cathy Stanton of Tufts University and the National Council of Public Historians leads a powerful conversation on her blog History at the Table. Cathy is interested in emerging collaborations between museums, historic sites, working farms and food communities, and the shared history that links farms and museums together. She outlined the beginnings of historic farm sites in the early agritourism and model-farm businesses of the late 19th century, describing how Americans gradually stopped seeing small-scale farming as a viable business approach – at least until today, when small-scale farms are once again growing at a rapid rate. On her blog you can find a list of museums and historic sites who are doing work related to food and farming, and add your own.

John Forti heads up the Historic Landscapes program at Strawbery Banke Museum. There, a robust program of gardens – both period-specific and broadly interpretive – offers daily tours with instruction in seed saving, plant lore and organic gardening practices. The gardens link with the interpretive plan to support a Historic Foodways program of seasonally changing experiences in cooking, preserving, and enjoying food.

1919 Roleplayer at Strawbery Banke demonstrates seed saving with heirloom tomatoes.

And I’ve begun work on tracing the history of food interpretation in museums and examining its varying agendas. We’re entering a time when new ideas about food in American culture are once again changing interpretive goals and activities. Though this discussion our field is just beginning, it’s likely to be fruitful. In Fall 2011, the  Center for the Future of Museums hosted a symposium called Feeding the Spirit: Museums and the Future of Community. Videos, slides and resources from that meeting are available online, including the stirring address “Serve it up Proudly” by culinary historian Jessica B. Harris.

Many of our sites are now, or have the potential to be, great places to share newly relevant ideas from the past about food. And yet, few  go beyond the old standby of the kitchen demonstration or occasional period supper. We’re hoping this conversation will grow, and intend to continue studying and supporting food interpretation and its links to contemporary issues.

What kinds of food interpretation happen at your site? What would you like to see happening that isn’t yet? Community and youth gardens, open meal events like Hull House’s, partnerships with farmer’s markets or food banks, food preservation classes?

And if you’d like to do more, what obstacles stand in your way? At our session, people mentioned a lack of space and kitchen facilities as a barrier, as well as local health regulations on food processing and service. What’s keeping you from achieving your food interpretation dreams?

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