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Film: The edible museum: the risk of putting a frame on food

This presentation was made by Elsa Vogts from Stellenbosch University in South Africa at MuseumNext Melbourne in February 2017.

Kayamandi is a marginalised and poor, mostly ethnically African community located a mere three kilometers away from the gastronomic hub of Stellenbosch, a predominantly white and wealthy town known for its wine farms and restaurants.

Given this socio-economic, cultural and racial divide, Elsa started to question the possibility of using food, a subject that can exclude as much as it can bring people together, as an attempt to bridge this gap.

Elsa’s PhD action research project subsequently entailed gathering a group of willing chefs and caterers from the Kayamandi community, to attempt to re-invent a closed-down restaurant that did not survive in its previous tourism-driven incarnation.

This, she enthused, would become a community focused restaurant that would serve as an “edible
museum”; where young, old, black and white could sit down, have a meal together and share in each other’s cultural narratives.

What happened next and what can museums from around the world learn from the experiment?

Elsa Vogts:  Hi everyone. It’s wonderful to be here, thanks so much to Jim and the Museum Next team, it’s an absolute honour to be able to speak at Museum Next. And thanks also to Paul and Amy for their wonderful presentations, and I think mine is going to be a little bit of a departure from escape rooms and children’s galleries. It might freak you out a little bit, it might seem very foreign, but I want you, if you do feel that way, to think back to Elaine’s talk this morning about the complex museum, and I really hope that you’ll find a little bit of that in what I’m about to say. So, the first time that I stepped into … sorry … there we go … the first time I stepped into the township of Kayamundi, I was a little bit overwhelmed, to say the least. I was trying not to get run over by speeding minibus taxis as I was guided past open fires and smoking sheep’s heads … these are also called smileys, for the sinister grin on their faces, as you can see. Seeing a pig being slaughtered in the street, I had to control every impulse not to reveal how revolted I was. On the other hand, tasting tripe … cow’s stomach … was surprisingly pleasant, in contrary to what you might see on the screen. So it was there, standing in pig’s blood, during my PhD fieldwork, that it really struck me that as a privileged and white South African, I sensed a massive disconnect between the daily realities of so many of my fellow citizens in the township, and my own experiences and perceptions. As a [museologist] with an insatiable appetite, however, I sensed an opportunity.

So I imagine you might be asking yourself ‘What does it mean to talk about an edible museum? Is it a gingerbread house? Is it made of chocolate? Is it, perhaps, a biodegradable art project? Is it a building filled with anthropological objects related to food, or is it just another word for a museum café?’ Defining the edible museum has been my quest for the past two years in pursuit of my PhD, as I’ve attempted to make sense of how museums and food could meet in ways that are meaningful across racial and cultural boundaries. The journey has led me to realise that the edible museum is actually not a destination, but a way of getting there. It’s a process which requires an open mind, a curious palate and a sense of playfulness. So I’ll begin my story by putting it in context. Here we are at the southern tip of Africa, and this is Central Stellenbosch. Now, Stellenbosch is roughly 50 kilometres outside of Cape Town, it’s a thriving urban sort of centre, it is populated by an overwhelmingly white and privileged demographic at its historical core; it’s the second-oldest town in South Africa and it has a rich heritage of wine farms, hence the wine that Jim was alluding to, as well as award-winning restaurants and a well-regarded university campus. But if you look beyond the beautiful architecture and the restaurants and the leafy suburbs, you will find that it’s one of the most unequal places in the country, if not the world.

Less than three kilometres from the centre of Stellenbosch lies Kayamundi. Now, Kayamundi is a township, and the South African townships are an unfortunate [special] legacy of the oppressive and unjust system of racial discrimination known as apartheid. It’s home to approximately 40,000 Black African residents, many have made the township their home in search of a better life, many have come from the rural Eastern Cape, which is up the country, or others have come from neighbouring Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Somalia. Kayamundi translates in the local [Isiqusa] language to ‘Home, Sweet Home’, which is quite ironic, because many few people in Kayamundi will call it there home forever. They tend to use it as a pit-stop or a stepping stone to somewhere else. Unemployment, poor basic services, as well as violent crime, do not make appealing cases to stay. Even though Stellenbosch is only a few kilometres down the road from Kayamundi, the racial divide between the centre and the margin is quite marked. Although there’s a constant flow of people between the two spaces, the number of white faces travelling outbound towards the township are very few, with many of those White people from the centre, with all apologies, citing fears of being targeted or getting mugged, and preventing them from entering Kayamundi.

The except to this rule, however, interestingly enough, is the development of a growing township-tourism movement. Now, township tourism has carved a contested niche for itself in countries where inequality is persistent. Optimists praise its socio-economic benefits, and critics denounce what they call the zooification of the poor, and in Kayamundi, it’s very interesting that tourism is actually quite welcomed by the local community. Many residents have ensured a livelihood for themselves by offering township tours, or what they call ‘dining with local experiences’, so they invite foreign tourists into their homes for a traditional African lunch. So due to the relatively positive reception of tourism in Kayamundi, I decided that this would be the ideal entry-point for my search for the edible museum, in the form of an action reseach project.

So, as fortune would have it, rumours had been circulating that a closed-down township- restaurant, which I will call [Kazi Kitchen], to maintain some scientific integrity … it is a pseudonym … had closed down, and they were looking to revive themselves. Now, it started as just a restaurant, but very quickly, the owners started realising that a restaurant was not enough to keep the space in operation, so they changed the whole model to a tourism-focused one, which included theatre and a taste of local entertainment. After a few very successful seasons, the numbers just didn’t add up, and the space closed down. So after a year spent in limbo, the owners were itching to do something with the space, and enter a willing PhD student with a bizarre and optimistic vision of turning a restaurant into a kind of hybrid museum, and we started the project. It was in my head the only way of creating something like a food-focused museum with the resources at my disposal in an existing building. So I gathered all the people that I had encountered during my fieldwork in Kayamundi that were operating in the food scene, whether it be as waiters or cooks or caterers, and we started our working group. So I had it all planned out, and we would have regular meetings, and soon enough, we would have a business plan in place.

Here’s a glimpse of how these meetings transpired: I would say ‘So let’s talk a little bit about our target audience: of course, you know, the focus of the space will be the local community’ and the group responded with ‘So you know, only white people will come here, we really need to target the tourists.’ [I’d say] ‘OK, fine, that’s all right’. Week 2 … so I say ‘Why don’t we try and involve the local community by chatting with local food gardens, to try and source produce to use in our kitchens?’ They say ‘If it’s a local community you want to target, then we need to sell hamburgers, pizzas and French fries.’ Right. Needless to say, I was learning quite a bit, and constantly negotiating between my own expectations, assumptions and fears … by week 3, we had decided to ditch the meetings completely, as it was December, and the group wanted to get trading as quickly as possible. People in the townships had bonuses in their pockets to spend, so we just had to whack together a plan, and we started trading with chicken wings and French fries.

So the first day went relatively well … we had a few wobbles here and there … but from there, we just stumbled on day to day, and dealt with issues as they arose. I attempted to steer the process through meetings; it was an action research project, after all, so that we can gauge our progress on the initiatives that we started, and we also came up with a working mission statement, which you can read up there, that really outlined the predicted activities towards which we were aiming in really trying to get this restaurant to function with an educational purpose similar to a museum. In this process, however, I quickly realised that I was turning into a bit of a museologist turned restaurateur; I found myself researching industrial gas hobs, and driving to restaurant auctions, trying to find secondhand kitchen equipment, networking with local food gardens and performance artists were sidelined, just as we struggled to get the basics in place to serve a plate of food.

So, fast forward a few weeks in this process, and [Kazi Kitchen] was reincarnated, but definitely not as an edible museum. We had to fall back on the previous tourism-driven model … there were very difficult conversations between the community team, the management and what we ended up deciding was that a tourism-focused model that had this sort of theatre …. dinner theatre element was the only thing that was viable, and our hopes for a community-focused restaurant were completely deflated. So I had to take a time out; I stepped back and reflected on what I perceived as a failed project, with a very messy result. Admittedly, I felt a little bit like the sheep up there. Shortly after, though, I drove up to the site to check in on how things were going, and I noticed the informal food vendors at the side of the road, and I thought about the fact that during this whole time, throughout this whole process, these ladies would wake up and they would start their wood-fire barbecues, and they would serve their food, and there was always people, they were always serving … some days were a little bit quieter than others, but they would be there every single day. And I realised that the meaningfulness that I’d been looking to create in the space of a restaurant museum actually came alive in the streets, in between these ladies and their barbecues, between the food gardens and the [swaza] shops. Sure, at times it was covered in pigs’ blood or the feathers of freshly-plucked chickens, it was very messy and dirty, but it was real. This was the making of the edible museum. And the cleaned up version of the township culture that we had attempted to create in the restaurant museum just required a wider perspective; it wasn’t the whole story. And more importantly, my own experience as a museologist really informed my understanding of the education purpose of this space, and it revised my understanding thereof. By simply being informed of the everyday realities of how food happens in the Kayamundi community, I became more sensitive to it, and at ease in its social settings; I knew how to order from these informal food vendors, and without feeling socially awkward or fearful of getting food poisoning, and I also became more empathetic, in many ways … empathic, sorry … I became sensitive to the way that my own food habits as a privileged person were in very subtle and direct ways connected to those of a community that I perceived to be as very, very different.

As an example, I thought about the lady who sells [amaguinya], now that is a kind of a fried bread doughnut, is the best way to describe it, which is very popular for breakfast. She has to get up at 4.00 am to start serving people at 5.00 am, who then had to cram themselves into minibus taxis, as you can see there, and travel for hours and hours to get to their workplace, which is very often in the hospitality industry, in restaurants where other privileged people would come and sit and dine and have a wonderful time with food. So just being aware of that often hidden chain of events, and the socio-cultural politics thereof really impact on my perception on food as a tool to connect, and I became aware of both the positive and negative associations that different people have with food. So reminded of Andre [Malhoro’s] Museum Without Walls, amongst other theoretical perspectives that I won’t elaborate on here, I took another look at my idea of the edible museum. If the edible museum was indeed embedded in the fabric of the community, how do you get people to notice it? And the tentative answer that I’ve come up with is, whatever is true to your own context. I still believe that a restaurant museum hybrid is possible, just not in Kayamundi, and with that, I want to pause at one project which I do think really showcases that quite well, and that is [Conflict] Kitchen in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which I visited a couple of years ago.

So they don’t call themselves a museum, by any means; they are a fully commercially-viable take-out restaurant, but what they do is, they change their identity every couple of months, and they take on the identity of countries with which the United States is in conflict, and in that way try and educate the public of Pittsburgh about these cultures that are different to the American public, and through their very involved programming, they do all of their R&D with local ethnic communities, and they have also helpful grant-based funding, which does help it quite a bit, but they’re fully functional, and run [off of] their turnover. So this is a great sort of example of a restaurant that actually serves a museological purpose in that way. In our case, though, the incompatibility of this kind of model was just too difficult, and I turned a little bit reluctantly to the digital realm. I thought, you know, having to engage with food through a screen is really going to rob the whole experience of its sensory richness, but when I thought about it a little bit further, there were actually issues that were precursory to getting people into Kayamundi, and these issues were getting people actually to find these food sites in Kayamundi … to anyone outside of Kayamundi, the township really resembles a bit of a labyrinth, and Google Maps is completely useless in this context … so providing people, especially outsiders, a map-based platform would be ideal. Secondly, they also had to know what to expect once they got there. If a vegetarian arrived here in Kayamundi, they would be sorely disappointed. So there’s a manner of briefing or basic education that needed to happen.

So I started experimenting with a couple of digital platforms online; my main criteria were visual appeal, ease of use and mapping capability, as well as it being free. Our budget is extremely tiny, as you can imagine. So I found this thing called Story Maps Cascade, which is produced by Esri, now Esri, for those of you who don’t know, is primarily a geography-based web application service, and I started sort of playing around with it, I was a little bit out of my depth, but it really offers some great capabilities. This is still in beta phase, so things might change down the line, and it’s sort of a work in progress, but it’s a great tool to use, and it also includes some video that can be drawn in from YouTube, and it’s very, very easy to use, and I think it can actually also be improved if we can get the maps, for example, to be crowdsourced, so that vendors can upload themselves to the maps to ensure that we really have a diversity and breadth of experience in that sense, and also linking it to a Facebook campaign would really also increase traction in the community.

But as much as this is an attempt to visualise the edible museum, it’s not something that can really be contained in either a web platform or in a restaurant building, such as [Conflict] Kitchen. The edible museum is really a process, and not a destination. It really requires an integrated understanding of the complexities surrounding the experience of food, including hunger, obesity, ethnicity and hybridity. So I’ll conclude with a summary of my key findings, for anyone in search of the edible museum in your own context, and in this sense, from a sort of a museological perspective, this is a little bit philosophical; I’m not a PhD student for nothing … but I do encourage you to take these ideas and to make it practical in your own context, [in] your own museums, and to definitely find me, if this sounds at all remotely interesting, to come and find me and we can chat about it. I love thinking creatively around different challenges and different contexts, so please do that if you would like to.

So the first piece of advice is, be curious and try something new, and this is oftentimes a bit of a challenge for museums; you know, taking the risk of stepping outside of your own boundaries and embracing the messiness that is food, I think is an important thing to realise; there’s something really magical and profound about working with food and getting your hands dirty. And it’s also a wonderful way of drawing in audiences that perhaps perceive your museum as a foreign space, that maybe aren’t used to the space of a museum. And even better, it’s a wonderful way to draw the museum out and into the community, it could be as simple as taking your museum staff into a local ethnic community to go and have a meal there, just as a way of starting the process. Food really breaks down barriers in more ways than you can imagine, and it really can create a much more open and engaging space in the museum.

Secondly, look beyond the menu. Now, this relates to becoming comfortable enough to ask what’s available, rather than assuming what you see is what you get. The richest food experiences are often the ones that are off the menu, that you really need to dig deeper to find out about, and I think that translates to museum professionals really having to spend a lot more time with the communities that they perhaps would like to have participating in the museum, to build relationships in order to get to the really difficult and maybe the more awkward conversations. Food has a very funny way of making those conversations a lot easier, and they can actually be quite transformative, and that’s … it’s in these awkward and difficult conversations that the edible museum really thrives, in my opinion.

And lastly, I would say play with your food. And I don’t only use ‘play’ here in sort of a fun way, although food really is quite fun to play with. But I use play here in a very interactive sense: by adopting a playful attitude to food, we can illustrate its implication in all aspects of daily life, both positive and negative, and we can really use it as a tool to engage between different audiences that are perhaps … perhaps perceive each other as quite different, so it’s a wonderful way to get people to chat with each other. So with that, I’ll say ignore your mother, and play with your food, because you might just find the edible museum in the process. Thank you very much.

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