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Big Food: Health, Culture and the Evolution of Eating

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Ella Mitchell, an intern in AAM’s Government Relations and Advocacy department, reports on an innovative collaboration between the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, and CARE—Community Alliance for Research & Engagement and its relation to Let’s Move! Museums & Gardens. This post is part of a continuing series documenting how museums are helping to combat the trends of increasing childhood obesity and decreasing fitness, contributing to a healthier future.

Natural history museums tend to conjure up gargantuan images: a towering Stegosaurus, enormous slabs of petrified wood and half-ton meteorites. The Peabody Museum has all of these, and on its way is a more unusual giant: Big Food.
Next year, “Big Food: Health, Culture and the Evolution of Eating,” a collaboration between the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and CARE—Community Alliance for Research and Engagement (a health initiative at the Yale School of Public Health) opens at the Peabody. This exhibit takes the Peabody’s mission to “advance our understanding of earth’s history” and applies it to obesity—one of the largest problems, both literally and figuratively, facing the Earth’s population today.
Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of the Rudd Center, explains her colleagues’ interest in the project, “Our mission at the Rudd Center is to take what academics study and translate it into something that’s useful to the general public.” One major way they do this is by working at the state and federal level to improve America’s food policies by advocating for optimal nutrition standards in schools, reduced food marketing to kids and correlating healthy food with affordable prices (and vice-versa)
For Jane Pickering, deputy director and assistant director for public programs at the Peabody Museum, and her colleagues at the Peabody, the major challenge with “Big Food” is how to make the topic fit in a museum setting. They have to consider, as Pickering says, “How can we design the exhibit so the average person says to himself, ‘I should really go see that.’”
As it so happens, the Peabody is particularly good at doing just that. Some recent shows, including “Invasion of the Bloodsuckers: Bedbugs and Beyond” and “Solving the Puzzle: Lyme Disease, West Nile, and You,” not only demonstrate their creativity (Check out the “Spot the Bloodsuckers” game on their website!) in making health topics into engaging exhibits, but also their commitment to teaching about pertinent issues. This doesn’t come easily, however, as Pickering points out the dangers of working with these topics, “We have to think about how to make it work without getting too heavy,” she said without irony. This is an aspect that the museum must constantly consider as Big Food continues to develop.
Jeannette Ickovics, professor of public health and director of CARE, conceived of the project and is the lead curator. As a professor of public health and mother of two young children, she was thrilled that the Peabody Museum was addressing health issues. She said to a staff member last fall, “It is great that the Peabody is addressing health, but acute infections aren’t driving human health in the 21st century—it is chronic disease. You should do an exhibition on ‘the evolution of obesity.’” And the rest, as they say, will soon be history. She reminds us that the World Health Organization estimates that more than 1 billion adults worldwide are overweight—at least 300 million of them clinically obese. The dramatic increase in obesity has contributed to an increased burden of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke, and certain forms of cancer.
The exhibit will include state-of-the-art and state-of-the-science approaches to understand the complex challenges associated with food, obesity and health. It will include a wide range of perspectives from the anthropology of hunter-gatherer societies to the culture of food marketing. All three partners are working to shed light on such diverse topics such as the neuroscience of appetite, impact of food and obesity on health, food deserts, modern agricultural subsidies, school lunches, the importance of energy balance via physical activity, and weight bias, among others. “Big Food” has the challenging task of teaching the public that bigger is not always better—especially when it comes to portion sizes and waistlines. The resulting exhibit should not only provide adults and children alike with an enjoyable afternoon, but also hopefully inspire them to become advocates for a healthier world.
Big Food opens Feb. 11, 2012, and run through Nov. 30 at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Conn.

Jane Pickering from the Peabody Museum and Jeannette Ickovics from the Yale School of Public Health will share lessons learned from their experiences in designing Big Food when they present at Feeding the Spirit, AAM’s symposium on museums, food and community. Join us in Pittsburgh on Oct. 13, as attendees and speakers from the leading edge of the Let’s Move! Museums & Gardens initiative work together to build a compendium of best practices for museums addressing food issues to help their communities and strengthen their own sustainability.

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Feeding the Spirit is convened in collaboration with Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, Association of Children’s Museums and American Public Gardens Association.

The Let’s Move! Museums & Gardens initiative brings the fight against obesity in America to museums and gardens of all types. By signing up for the program, museums are part of a partnership not only with the White House, but also with a larger network of national associations and museums. For more information on the initiative, visit the IMLS website.

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