From farmers’ markets to the Food Network, from the emergence of Michael Pollan as a household name to the proliferation of food studies programs, publications, and standing-room-only conference sessions, popular and scholarly interest in food appears insatiable. It is fitting, then, that food is the subject of a new exhibition at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. (fig. 1). FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950–2000 opened to the public in November 2012 and is scheduled to remain on display through 2015.1
The strengths of food as a subject for a historical museum are the same as those that have led to its popularity among scholars, writers, and the public.2 Food is elemental, one of the main ways we connect to the world [End Page 947] around us. On our plates, the labors of those who till the soil become our sustenance. Eating is also a highly personal act, an expression of social and cultural values, ethnic traditions, regional differences, and national identity. By using food to tell the story of life in the United States since 1950, the exhibition’s curators draw connections among a number of historical topics: technological changes and environmental transformations, shifts in rural livelihoods and suburban lifestyles, the health and labor of producers and consumers, and profound social and cultural shifts whose effects continue to reverberate.
The choice of time period strengthens the exhibition in two main ways. First, it constrains what could otherwise be a sprawling narrative, by focusing on an interval of immense changes in the way Americans raised and consumed their food, marked primarily by standardized products, new distribution networks, and increased processing. Indeed, one might argue that, until the postwar era, a truly national food system and diet did not exist. Second, focusing on the recent past allows FOOD to examine transformations that most adult visitors have lived through. By using familiar objects and recognizable meals to tell a larger history of technological and social change, FOOD gives visitors the opportunity to place their own recollections in historical context and to participate in intergenerational storytelling, as older visitors share their memories with younger companions.
FOOD is mainly structured around display cases containing a variety of artifacts, documents, and images. Interpretive panels below tell the stories [End Page 948] behind these objects, using both text and historical photographs. Videos supplement the textual interpretation in three locations. The displays are inviting, with bold colors that draw the eye and help segment the story into chapters. In places, the text can be difficult to read (white text on a deep yellow background does not show up well under bright lights), and some of the objects are difficult to match to their descriptions, but these minor design problems do not detract from an excellent presentation. The tone of the writing is engaging and informative, often playful and humorous. The space as a whole has the homey feel of a kitchen and dining room. The table as symbol and artifact is a recurring trope, and the exhibition is designed to give everyone a chance to sit down, talk, and settle in.
The story of FOOD unfolds in five segments, each of which covers the fifty-year period with a slightly different focus. Visitors are welcomed by Julia Child’s kitchen, one of the most popular objects in the museum, and the largest on display here. The kitchen was formerly a stand-alone display titled Bon Appétit! Julia Child’s Kitchen at the Smithsonian. In its new quarters, it is presented and interpreted to better effect, with visitors able to...