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Catching up with Jeannette Ickovics: 2011 Feeding the Spirit Keynote Speaker

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Can a museum win the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Childhood Obesity Challenge? With your help, maybe yes. Read on.

Last winter, Jeannette Ickovics from the Yale School of Public Health talked to us about the exhibit Big Food: Health Culture and the Evolution of Eating in the Feeding the Spirit symposium and webcast. Her colleague Jane Pickering, from the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, shared advice about designing exhibits that tackle issues of health & obesity in the Feeding the Spirit Cookbook: resource and discussion guide.

As Jane noted, Big Food was a challenging exhibit to pull together, not the least because of the sensitivity of the topic. How do you motivate people to come to an exhibit about how we Americans are getting too fat? It’s hard to make that subject sound fun and compelling. But the Peabody Museum pulled it off: Big Food has had over 75,000 visitors in six months (including 13,400 children in school groups) setting a record for the most monthly visits in a decade of the museum’s operations. Jane wrote to me recently, commenting that she continues to be amazed at the conversations generated by Big Food. “Far more people talk with me about this exhibit than any others I have done at the Peabody,” she relates. “Case in point it’s the first time an out-of-town Advisory Board member has made an extra trip to the museum specifically to bring a friend to see the show.”

Besides being a successful exhibit, Big Food is a great example of a university museum reaching both inward and outward to amplify its power to change the world. By partnering with staff at the School of Public Health, the museum tapped into both expertise on content and the existing community connections that the school’s CARE program has been building since 2007. CARE—the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement—unites community organizations, neighborhood associations, hospitals and health centers, city government and public schools, faith communities, arts and cultural institutions and businesses with the university, its School of Public Health and (now) its museum. Our speakers at Feeding the Spirit emphasized over and over again that this kind of deep, enduring, complex network of support is necessary to create real change in a community.

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Bonus payoff—the exhibit is raising the profile of museums as agents of social change. Big Food is a contender in the Childhood Obesity Challenge being conducted by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Winners will be selected by a panel of experts, but there will also be a “popular choice award.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a museum won both the expert and popular vote? You can help make that happen by casting your vote here.

If you think an exhibit on fighting obesity is a good fit for your community, but don’t have the resources to create one from the ground up, you’re in luck. The Peabody Museum is looking to put Big Food on tour. Jeannette says “We believe that the powerful impact Big Food has had on the local community can be exponentially amplified by taking Big Food ‘To Go’.  Transforming Big Food into a traveling exhibition will disseminate greater understanding and consideration for the way individuals, families, and communities across the United States consume food and help increase positive changes in lifestyles across the nation.” If you’re interested in hosting Big Food at your museum, contact Jeannette.

What’s next for the Peabody Museum of Natural History? Jane reports that they will continue addressing the “big” challenges facing society in the 21st century with “Seasons of Change,” a travelling exhibit that focuses on the impact of climate on New England. As with Big Food, they’ll be doing a variety of programming that uses the resources they have at Yale as well as collaborating with local organizations.

And if your museum is tackling issues of childhood health and obesity prevention, you can sign up to be a Let’s Move Museum and Garden at the IMLS website.

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