Eating and Drinking in Museums

From Liz Williams, Director

I have eating and museums on the brain right now.  First, because people eat and drink at SoFAB and the Museum of the American Cocktail all the time.  We have few barriers to eating and drinking in the museum.  But I know that we are not the norm.  The second reason that it is on my mind is that there have been a number of articles about it in the press recently.  And finally, because I just got back from a trip to New York, where I ate at the Russ and Daughters at the Jewish Museum, and I was on a panel about Food and Museums at New York University.

Food + Museums Panel at the NYU Steinhardt School: Nutrition and Food Studies Department, photo courtesy @NYU_NFSPH

Food + Museums Panel at the NYU Steinhardt School: Nutrition and Food Studies Department, photo courtesy @NYU_NFSPH

After this immersion into the subject I am happy to report that I am optimistic about food and museums.  I do not expect that conservators will give in and let people eat in art museums anytime soon, but I believe that the museum café is – more and more -  being considered another space that can be curated in support of the museum’s mission.  The Jewish Museum in New York is the perfect example, where the restaurant Russ and Daughters serves kosher food and hosts a Shabbat brunch

Barbequeing outside of the entrance to the Southern Food & Beverage Museum

Barbequeing outside of the entrance to the Southern Food & Beverage Museum

Of course a great deal of well-deserved praise has been heaped upon the newly opened Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and its cafeteria, which was curated by noted food historian, Jessica Harris. The press has been so wide-spread that for some people this is the first time that the notion of curating the food at a museum, that is relating the food to the purpose and mission of the museum, has even been considered.  The Smithsonian began this process with the emphasis on native foods at the National Museum of the American Indian. 

And, of course, SoFAB has always considered the food and drink in the museum to be crucial to our mission.  That is why we allow food and drink – actually encourage food and drink – in the museum.  We actually have trash cans in the museum to make it possible to throw away disposable packaging.  We also have hi-boys scattered about for depositing used glassware and plates.  We serve food in the museum itself, and we have a demonstration kitchen.  All of the lovely smells of the kitchen (ours and the in house restaurant, Toups South) become part of the museum experience. 

Food is not at the core of every museum, but there is no reason why every museum café should not be thoughtfully curated in support of the particular mission of the museum.  A design museum should have well-designed plates, flatware and glasses.  An art museum should have food that reflects exhibits or other aspects of the museum.  Objects, art and artifacts, can grace the eating space.  It is an exciting time for eating in museums.  It reminds us that no space in a museum, certainly the dining facilities, but even the bathrooms, should be squandered.  The experience should be immersive.

At SoFAB's 2015 Gala

At SoFAB's 2015 Gala