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Feeding the Spirit Symposium: A Fresh Frame of Reference for Museums-Community-Food

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

This guest post is by David R. Curry, a member of the CFM Council

As someone who has refined a set of strategies to survive symposiums and conferences (which all too often seem like they could be half as long and twice as substantive) I was disarmed by the quality and impact of CFM’s Feeding the Spirit: Museums, Food and Community last week in Pittsburgh.

The meeting was hosted by the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden, and convened in collaboration with the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, the Association of Children’s Museums, the American Public Gardens Association and the Association of African American Museums, with support from presenting sponsor UPMC Health Plan and from Sodexo.

I say disarmed because I did not anticipate that the meeting would have the effect of changing my frame of reference about museums and the role that food—broadly speaking—could play to energize, refresh and align mission, programs and people.

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The précis for the meeting on the CFM website addresses the opportunity as follows:

Feeding the Spirit” will recruit museums and public gardens to…help their communities explore our collective values about food, our bodies, our environment and society. It will unify the field around key messages about food critical to transforming the health of the country, and challenge museums and public gardens to integrate these messages into their exhibits, programs and operations. It will lead the field to examine the food choices we provide in our facilities and how these choices align with health and nutrition. [Further, it]…will help museums and public gardens prepare for the future as they re-examine their own attitudes and relationships towards food and explore how food can play a key role in fostering relationships and building new audiences. 

But the proof was in the pudding [note food metaphor] as some 150 participants from a range of museum types, as well as food service companies and collaborating organizations, actively participated in thought leader-led panels and workshop-level exercises.

Well…it did recruit, unify, lead and help prepare!

During the day, organizations as diverse as the Yale Peabody Museum, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, the Newark Museum, National Museum of the American Indian, the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, the Chicago Botanic Garden, Growing Power (Chicago) and others all reported on unique and powerful exhibits, programs and initiatives themed to “food.”

My key observation (which I am still reflecting on) is about how rich the collaborative networks were that underpinned all these projects.

Clearly, they each depend on building and nurturing collaborations between museums, but, more important, with non-museums institutions and organizations—governmental, academic, commercial and community.

My open question involves how we develop and refine the collaborative skill sets in our museum staffs and leadership to make such projects and their new kinds of goals and outcomes a possibility….and a success.

The day included a good dose of brainstorming and ideation which will be analyzed and disseminated through the “Feeding the Spirit Cookbook” a resource and discussion guide to follow.

Please watch this space as CFM will post video of the thought leader segments of the meeting as well as the annual CFM Lecture which closed the day: Serve It Up Proudly! Some Food for Thought on the Intersections of Food Studies and Museums delivered by Jessica Harris, culinary historian and Queens College, CUNY and the Ray Charles Program at Dillard University.

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