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Do Museums Need to Care about Foodies?

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog


This guest post is by Susie Wilkening, senior consultant and curator of museum audiences, Reach Advisors. We’ve been blogging a lot about food, leading up to the symposium Feeding the Spirit: Museums, Food & Community in Pittsburgh on Oct. 13. Susie shares data demonstrating why museums should care about food, and foodies, when planning how to expand audiences and improve the bottom line.
Turns out, there are a fair number of museum goers who enjoy food. 
This makes intuitive sense to me! When my husband, Jeremy, and I recently traveled to Turkey, Jeremy was prepared. He thoroughly researched all the most interesting restaurants and local dives and coded them on a map. As we explored Istanbul, whenever we got hungry, Jeremy pulled out his handy map and presto! we had a convenient (and typically delicious) meal. For us, food is a gateway to learning about a new place, a different culture, even a different time. Back home in the Boston area we also seek out interesting foods, both traditional to the area we live in and authentic fare served by, and primarily for, the many ethnicities of our multi-cultural region.
In some of our recent client work at Reach Advisors we have gathered data on interest in food-related activities, such as:  learning about the past or different cultures through food; seeking out interesting restaurants, markets and food festivals; and getting creative in the kitchen via cooking or baking. When we examine the responses of food-oriented individuals, we find that these individuals are curious museum-goers who would love for museums to engage them via food. Our work with the Atlanta History Center is representative of our food findings for museums to date. Michael Rose of AHC graciously allowed us to share these findings with you because, as Michael puts it, “foodways is one of our favorite things.”
About the Research
Our work in Atlanta began with a cultural consumers survey disseminated via the email lists of cultural organizations throughout the Atlanta metro area; nearly 7,500 individuals responded.
A third of the sample (37 percent) said either they enjoyed cooking or baking at home in their leisure time or that eating authentic or ethnic foods from the past was a favorite way of experiencing history. An additional 14 percent, who we are calling Super Foodies, chose both responses, for a total of 51 percent of the sample having some explicit interest in food. I’ll be focusing on the smaller group of Super Foodies, though the additional 37 percent of food-motivated visitors are more like the Super Foodies than the remainder of the non-Foodie sample. 
Super Foodies, Museums and Food
Super Foodies are younger than average museum visitors, being much more likely to be under 40. In particular, young women without children and mothers of children five and younger, seem to be particularly attuned to food in their lives. 
Happily, Super Foodies are committed, curious museum goers visiting a wider variety of museums more often than regular museum goers with less interest in food. Their strong interest in food does not get checked at the door when they visit museums, however, and Super Foodies are attuned to opportunities to learn about food, where it comes from and how it reflects different cultures and the past.  As one of our respondents noted:

“Okay, at the risk of sounding gluttonous, I would say that I enjoy any history experience where I get to ’taste’ the past!  I LOVE food (and most everyone else does too, but some won’t admit it). . . . I have a very strong association with food and memory.”

Additionally, Super Foodies are hands-on individuals. While they are more likely than other respondents to enjoy hands-on activities at museums, they are also much more likely to enjoy crafting and DIY projects as well as gardening. In our continued work with AHC we met young mothers who were planting their own vegetable plots and even tending chickens and other farm animals. Our research from within and outside the museum field indicates that younger adults and parents are giving more thought to food, where it comes from, how it is grown and how it tastes, as well as the cultural significance of food.
Food and Museums.  So what?
Given that just over half of regular museum goers have an explicit interest in food, food represents a very powerful, sensory method of engaging museum goers at museums of all types.  Additionally, food is a great venue for participating in Let’s Move! Museums and Gardens, the initiative in which IMLS is working with the First Lady’s office to develop programming around healthy eating. How could your museum go about incorporating food in your programming?  Here are some of our ideas: 
  • sparking debate on the pros and cons of industrial agriculture versus organic farming at a science center
  • getting dirty at a botanical garden with young adults learning how to tend their own gardens
  • time traveling at history-based museum by sharing authentic foods of the past
  • expeditions via food, exploring the significance of  food in sustaining cultural identity, at an art, anthropology or even a children’s museum
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The possibilities of incorporating food into traditional museum experiences are endless, and given the high interest many museum goers have in food, and the intensity of a tasting experience, food is a, ahem, tasteful and filling addition to the offerings a museums has to offer visitors, and could well be a draw for bringing in younger and more diverse audiences.
Interested in exploring how food can help your museum connect to new audiences? Join colleagues from the museum and food communities in Pittsburgh on Oct. 13 for Feeding the Spirit.

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