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Cooking history – how food inspired events can enrich museum engagement

As a new museum for food opens in Rome it’s a great time to look at how food can help museums to inspire their visitors.

What’s your favourite recipe? Is it your dinner party show-stopper? Perhaps it’s one that pings you back to Grandma’s kitchen, sneaking a dip of sauce from the pot. Or perhaps it’s that one simple indulgence, perfected by your secret ingredient.

We all know that food has the power to stir emotions and engage our imaginations. Great food is a creative act and one that we all experience – whether we’re making it, eating it or lusting after it on TV.

So as a way of enriching our visitor’s experiences, food seems like a brilliant ingredient for a museum event programme. But how can it be added to the mix?

Here are some great examples to whet your appetite.

Garum Bibilioteca e Museo della Cucina, Rome

To start, let’s take a look at some dedicated food museums and their event programmes.

Garum Biblioteca e Museo della Cucina opened in May 2022 to conserve historic Italian recipes. It houses an exhibition space and a library within an impressive historical site – believed to be on the same spot where the she-wolf cared for the infant Romulus and Remus.

Visitors to the website can explore the digitized library, which includes some of the rarest cookery books in the world, and an online museum catalogue is set to follow. If you’d like to browse the library, sign up on the website here.

In addition to the collections, the museum will offer an incredibly tempting events programme where visitors can enjoy a taste of these historic recipes.

Tasting events will serve authentic finger foods created from the first printed recipes of famous dishes, and if you want to indulge further, extravagant dinners will showcase recipes from over 500 years of history.

These events are made possible by a partnership with a Tuscan cooking school, Campus Etoile Academy, which, as Ronan O’Connell explained in his review for the BBC “will help the museum grow rare ingredients and perfect neglected recipes once reserved only for royalty.”

Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD), New York

MOFAD launched their first food history focused exhibition in 2013, with ‘BOOM! The Puffing Gun and the Rise of Cereal’, which featured a giant 1930’s era Puffing Gun which toured New York.

Since then, they’ve created a museum, MOFAD Lab, as well as hundreds of events and programs.

The museum devises its exhibits to use taste, touch and smell to engage its visitors and bring to life its mission that ‘Food is Culture. As the most universal aspect of human existence, it is a powerful lens for understanding ourselves, each other, and the world around us.’

In their current exhibition, African/American: Making the Nation’s Table visitors can ‘come walk the fields, see the kitchens, and meet the people who show that African American food is American food’.

The immersive exhibition includes the opportunity to visit the Ebony Test Kitchen (rescued from demolition in 2018), a VR tour which explores the historic Gilliard Farms in Georgia and the Jones Bar-B-Q in Kansas City, and a tasting session with recipes from top African American chefs.

Their events range from talks with food writers and chefs to recreations of famous meals, such as a reimagining of a banquet from Nixon’s ground breaking visit to China in 1972.

Disgusting Food Museum, Malmö

In Sweden’s Disgusting Food Museum, tastings also feature prominently in the experience.

This museum includes 80 of the world’s most disgusting foods, as they explain ‘Food is so much more than sustenance. Curious foods from exotic cultures have always fascinated us. Unfamiliar foods can be delicious, or they can be more of an acquired taste. While cultural differences often separate us and create boundaries, food can also connect us. Sharing a meal is the best way to turn strangers into friends.’

While this exhibit explores food as culture, it also investigates the experience of disgust. ‘The evolutionary function of disgust is to help us avoid disease and unsafe food.’ they continue, ‘Disgust is one of the six fundamental human emotions. While the emotion is universal, the foods that we find disgusting are not. What is delicious to one person can be revolting to another. Disgusting Food Museum invites visitors to explore the world of food and challenge their notions of what is and what isn’t edible.’

Visitors are invited to taste and smell a selection of the exhibits, including the world’s smelliest cheese, and sweets made from chemicals used for cleaning metals.

Feast and Fast, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Moving on from dedicated food museums, The Fitzwilliam’s Feast and Fast exhibition ran from November 2019 to August 2020 and included four historical reproductions (which included a European feasting table and a Georgian confectioner’s workshop) and a 4-metre tall pineapple installation by Bompas and Parr on the museum’s lawn. The museum explained “Food defines us as individuals, communities, and nations: we are what we eat and, equally, what we don’t eat. When, where, why, how and with whom we eat are crucial to our identity. Feast & Fast presents novel approaches to understanding the history and culture of food and eating.”

Talks, workshops for teenagers, a conference, demonstrations and handling sessions accompanied the exhibition, illustrating the power of food to connect with a wide range of audiences.

Audley End, Essex

Audley End has found enormous YouTube success with the series ‘The Victorian Way’, and its star presenter, Mrs Crocombe.

Mrs Crocombe was the Head Cook at the country house in the Victorian period. While she was already a feature of the properties’ interpretation, after they were gifted her handwritten notebook by a visitor in 2009 Audley End has woven her real-life recipes into their storytelling.

As part of Audley End’s costume interpretation, visitors to the country house can meet Mrs Crocombe, chat and watch her demonstrate historical cooking.

‘The Victorian Way’ is a series of videos featuring the cook, which might follow along as she demonstrates cooking one of her recipes, or detail some of the tasks of managing the country house.

At the time of writing, there are 61 videos in the series ‘The Victorian Way’ with the ‘How to Make Butter’ episode alone attracting over 11million views. It’s easy to see why the campaign has won multiple awards.

Plus, the videos have been so successful that there is now an accompanying cookbook ‘How To Cook The Victorian Way With Mrs Crocombe’

Food is such an accessible way to enhance engagement – by stimulating the senses, speaking about society or providing immersive, indulgent experiences. How could you include food in your programming?

About the author – Rebecca Hardy Wombell

Rebecca Hardy Wombell is a freelance writer who works with a broad range of creative organisations, including artists, galleries, museums and design-led retailers.

Her writing aims to develop and delight audiences by putting her clients’ beautiful works to well-crafted words.

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