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Beyond Four Walls: A conversation with Peter Kim about creating a museum of food and community

Category: Financial Sustainability
View of a person working up high on a wall and sparks flying everywhere.
Cereal flies from a puffing gun at a Museum of Food and Drink exhibit at the Summer Street Festival in New York.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2015 edition of the Museum magazine.

Good projects never really end—they flow into the future with all sorts of serendipitous consequences. A lovely ripple effect of the Center for the Future of Museums’ (CFM) 2011 food symposium, “Feeding the Spirit: Museums, Food and Community,” was connecting me to a plethora of food-related museums and museum projects. One of these was just in the planning stages—the New York-based Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD). Museums benefit enormously from recruiting people from diverse backgrounds, and the backstory of MOFAD’s founding director, Peter Kim, is about as diverse as it gets. Peter recruited me to be on MOFAD’s advisory board (a testament to his powers of persuasion, as I’ve never accepted an invitation like that before), and I’ve been tremendously impressed by how the fledgling organization is navigating the contemporary challenges of starting a museum. I took the opportunity recently to debrief Peter on what brought him to MOFAD, and what he’s learned so far as a founding director. This article is edited and condensed from that conversation—Elizabeth Merritt, founding director, Center for the Future of Museums, American Alliance of Museums

Tell me a little bit about your background. How did you come to be the director of MOFAD?

Working on MOFAD represents the confluence of a lot of independent strands of experience that I’ve had throughout my life. They all came together into this perfect project. For one, I started cooking at a very young age because my parents had to work late hours. So when I was 10 or 11, I was already starting to cook, and when I was
in high school, I was already cooking big dinners, having lots of guests over. My parents would always invite their friends over and I would cook for them.

Headshot of Peter Kim with chefs seen blurred in the background.
MOFAD Founding Director Peter Kim.

The next big thing was in college, when I read Harold McGee’s book, On Food and Cooking. That was a significant moment when I realized that food could be thought of something as more than just recipes and ingredients—a window into culture, history, and science.

I started to become fascinated with food culture and food history. Instead of just eating something, I would wonder, well, why is it like this? Why do we eat this at this time of day? Why is breakfast defined in this way? Where do these ingredients come from? What does it mean for me to eat this or for you to eat this?

I worked in hunger policy for a year. I did a fellowship for the Congressional Hunger Center. This was a program for young leaders in development, exposing them to issues in hunger and poverty policy. I worked for a little while at the USDA, helping them with food stamp outreach, and then in DC doing more advocacy work. That opened my eyes to the problem of hunger in the US. It’s very real and very complicated. There’s personal choice involved, there is policy that’s involved, there are cultural norms that are involved.

I ended up living and traveling in a lot of different places around the world: Thailand, the Peace Corps in Cameroon, the Middle East, Europe and Buenos Aires. I was struck in all of my travels by how food could be such an incredible connector. Even when I was in the most remote places with people whom I wouldn’t be able to speak with because of a language barrier, there was always food, right? I would say there are a handful of things in the world that are really universal. And food is one of them. When I was in Cameroon, I was posted in this archetypal Peace Corps village. No electricity, no running water. When I arrived, there were a lot of language barriers, not to mention cultural barriers. One of the ways in which I started to gain the trust of people in my community was inviting them over, cooking for them, showing them American food that was important to me, and Korean food. And then, in turn, tasting food that was particular to the different tribes in the village. That became a real running theme for me all throughout my Peace Corps experience—bonding with people over food.

When I was in Cameroon, I started a small nonprofit called L’Art de Vivre, which means the art of living. It paired art education classes with public health education. I wanted to have the community work with me on creating this program, so we had advisors from the village. I had a Cameroonian counterpart who ran the program with me. We designed the classes in a way that would focus on empowerment and choice. We worked with high school kids and gave them art classes, and then paired those with public health education classes.

View of a picture opportunity at the Museum of Food and Drink with MOFAD Boom Puffs board with a hole in the right side for a person to put their face through.

If they were learning about nutrition, they would learn how to draw fruits, vegetables, meat. If they were learning about sexually transmitted diseases, they would learn to draw social situations that involve boys and girls. After a standard battery of classes, they were each allowed to choose a particular topic that was important to them, pick a medium and decide how they wanted to express the messages that they wanted to share with their peers. They made comic books and flip charts based on what they had learned and their own self-guided inquiry.

They used those flip charts to educate their peers. I made a point of not being the guy going out into neighborhoods and educating people. I felt they would be much more effective if they were doing it themselves. It was an interesting lesson for me about the value of empowering people to make their own decisions.

I’m seeing three themes come together here: food and issue activism, experience on how food can serve as a connector between different cultures, and experiences that shaped your philosophy on how a nonprofit can work with communities. How did these come together in your approach to creating MOFAD?

We want MOFAD to empower people to find their own right solutions from every angle. There’s just no way we
could tell people what’s nutritionally healthy in an absolute sense because it’s so relative to your own personal lifestyle and to what’s important to you culturally.

We want to show people how exciting it is to learn and care about food, and then provide them with Information that has been thoroughly researched and is free of any sort of marketing agenda or paternalistic, didactic finger wagging. We want people to navigate this topic on their own and come to their own decisions.

I’m really excited about the prospect of MOFAD reaching communities that traditionally do not go to museums. We have a unique opportunity because food is an accessible entry—a place that people are familiar with. At a museum of art, there could be a barrier because people might say to themselves, “Well, I don’t know enough about art to feel comfortable with going to an art museum.” Whereas with food, everybody is an expert, in a way. Even a 10-year-old has 10 years of experience in dealing with food and drink. We want people to feel like they have a set of experiences that is entirely valid and important and should inform the decisions that they make.

Everybody needs to eat. Most people care about the food that they eat, to some degree. We have to meet them there and then try to take them a little further. Given how universal food is, I think we’ll be able to reach new audiences with MOFAD that other museums might struggle with.

Even though MOFAD does not have a physical site, you are beginning this process of reaching out to audiences who care about your issues. Tell me how you’re doing that.

We kicked off the project in 2013. After thinking a lot about how we would want to start off MOFAD, crowd funding seemed like a perfect spiritual fit with the identity of the museum. The campaign was incredibly successful. Most of the donations that we got were really small, but we had over 830 people contribute. That gave us enough to put on an exhibition.

We thought a lot about the first exhibit that we wanted to do, and the puffing gun made a lot of sense for us. Because we’re taking care to not choose topics that are just foodie-centric. The puffing gun is a technology that debuted in 1904 at the Saint Louis World’s Fair. It revolutionized the cereal industry: most cereals that you see today on the shelves of the supermarket are puffed cereals. Prior to the puffing gun, the only cereals that you had were flaked cereals or shredded cereals or chunked cereals like Grape Nuts. The puffing gun opened the door to a whole range of possibilities for cereals. It was used to make cereals like Cheerios and Kix. During the hey day of the puffing gun is right about when cereal made the switch from a health food to something that had a lot of different flavors and colors and advertising campaigns attached to it. The puffing gun era was that period when cereal went from something that we wouldn’t recognize to something that we would recognize today.

Breakfast cereal is one of these things that, like it or not, is a deeply rooted part of American food culture. Whether you’re an immigrant or whether you’re from a generations-long family here in the US, it’s likely that you have breakfast cereal in your pantry right now. We set up the exhibit in a way that could appeal to adults or children. It really did; it was interesting. We debuted the exhibit at the Summer Street Festival in New York, and had children who were going bonkers with excitement seeing this puffing gun explode cereal. But then we had old-timers looking at it and thinking wistfully about the days of yore when they would see the Quaker Puffed Rice commercials and see the cannons firing.

That’s a great example of how an artifact embodies a really important piece of history and culture and changes in food consumption habits. You’ve also been exploring contemporary issues through a lecture series and debate series, right?

Each of the programs that we’ve done so far has been carefully designed. We want them to strategically show a different facet of what the future brick-and-mortar museum will be like. The puffing gun was an example of a highly sensory, highly interactive and sensational exhibit. MOFAD Roundtable is our way of demonstrating the role that MOFAD could play as a forum for differing opinions on controversial food issues. And it’s a recognition of the fact that we all feel very strongly about certain issues. Reasonable people will disagree on these issues.

We bring together four people who fundamentally disagree on an issue and leave them to talk to each other with very light moderation. This has been spectacular. We did the first one on the New York soda ban. We brought together a libertarian who represented the soda industry’s perspective on the soda ban, a nutritionist who had
advised the city on the drafting of the regulation, an economist and an antihunger advocate who opposed the ban just like the libertarian—on totally different grounds because he viewed it as being paternalistic toward poor communities.

All four people had different perspectives, and it made for a lively discussion. A common response we’ve been getting from people who walk away from these roundtables is that they’ve been prompted to reevaluate their positions on an issue. Oftentimes they say that these were some of the best discussions they have heard, because it’s contentious, it’s lively. And we’ve managed to keep the tone respectful. But there is disagreement, which is important to highlight.

We’ve done this for all sorts of contentious issues. We did GMOs, we did big food and marketing, and then we also did the future of meat. The meat one was quite an emotional conversation. In the middle of the event, we hit this emotional crest where people were screaming at each other. But then it dialed back and we had an interesting resolution. Everybody saw that there was a common goal. Everybody recognized that changes needed to happen in the way we grow and eat meat, and that the way it was going right now was unsustainable.

We have been pleasantly surprised by the diversity of people who have come. At the meat roundtable, we had old-timers from the Lower East Side, right next to a lot of younger food studies students. We had people from government. We had faculty from the NYU food studies department come.

I think we can always do better in reaching a more diverse audience. But so far we’ve tried to pick issues that everybody cares about, like the soda ban.

One of the things I get asked is how museums are going to be different in the future because of all this emphasis on digital. What do you see as the relationship between MOFAD’s physical experience and its digital reach?

At this stage, it is imperative that we have a strong digital presence because we don’t have that physical space for people to go to. We’re developing a new program right now called MOFAD City, which will be a digital initiative that combines geolocations, smartphone technology, and the urban environment to in essence turn the city into a food museum. We’ll be highlighting restaurants, markets, food vendors and bakeries in ethnic enclaves and in historically significant neighborhoods around the city. And telling stories like you would see in a museum through exhibits.

When you use the app you’ll be able to go and visit, say, a Trinidadian bakery. We would tell you not only where to go and what to order, but also what it means. So if you get a goat roti, we’ll connect you to the stories and the information that explain why Trinidadian cuisine includes something like this. What are the cultural influences that came into this? What is the history of Trinidad that allows this dish to be created? How has this dish been adapted by communities in New York City?

It’s kind of a hybrid digital-physical thing because it’s dealing with physical places in the city. Because we don’t have this home, we want to make sure that we have a strong digital presence even before we have the brick-and-mortar museum.

There is a challenge for museums in the 21st century in how to stay relevant as information becomes more widely available on the Internet and people can learn about the kind of things that they would learn about in museums but instead in their home on their computer.

I think MOFAD will be relevant even as people can access more information on the Internet because it will be this destination that integrates sensory experience with the information. So if you’re learning about Vietnamese street food, you taste Vietnamese street food. If you’re learning about coffee, then you’ll actually taste coffee from different regions around the world brewed using different technologies, roasted at different levels.

There’s a lot of evidence out there that when you combine this sort of sensory experience with the information, it sticks. I don’t think there’s going to be, in the near future, any kind of technology where you can eat through the Internet. So long as that’s true, there’s something that MOFAD will be able to provide that you won’t be able to get anywhere else. That’s one way in which we’re well suited for the challenges that museums are facing for the 21st century.

View of a grinder working.

How is starting a museum now different than it was at the end of the last century?

I’ve definitely gotten some raised eyebrows when we say we want to start a museum at this time. Museums are also facing the challenges of changing demographics. Traditional museumgoing audiences are declining as a percentage of the population. We’re trying to be prepared for that by framing MOFAD in a way that will be as accessible as possible for as broad an audience as possible. What we’re trying to create is unlike anything that exists right now, to our knowledge. We’re looking at what seems to work for other museums, taking the best of that and trying to apply it to the way in which we build MOFAD. I feel like MOFAD is going to be a hybrid museum that takes the best of a natural history museum and a science museum. The interactivity of a science museum, but with a collection of historical artifacts. And then we’ll have food service throughout the whole museum. So it’s unlike anything that we’ve seen to date. That’s definitely been a challenge for us—to get across that vision when you don’t have a ready example or analog to point to.

That’s certainly a sea change because most museums are premised around protecting the collections, with the presumption that you don’t have food in the galleries. Do you have any advice for your compatriots who are running traditional museums and trying to adopt food to enhance their mission, exhibits, and programing?

I would highly recommend incorporating food and drink into programming no matter the discipline of the museum. One of the basic theses underlying MOFAD is that food is connected to everything. I honestly can’t think of a single subject matter that a museum takes on for which you would not be able to have some sort of food and drink component. It may not be a question of having it built into your exhibition galleries because of restrictions on collections. Think beyond the four walls of the museum and go into communities with food—find a way to think of the bridges between the community and the subject matter that your museum is taking on. And think about the role that food could play in bridging that gap.

Are any of the trends we explore through the Center for the Future of Museums having a particular impact on MOFAD?

I read CFM’S TrendsWatch 2015 chapter on the ethical questions that museums are increasingly facing, and it struck home for me because at MOFAD we all feel this obligation to provide people with unbiased information, and for the organization to embody the values that we hope to instill in our visitors.

Unlike other disciplines that are covered by museums, like art, science or natural history, our subject matter is food, which is something that people make consumer decisions about multiple times a day. And those decisions affect our health, communities, the economy, the environment. We take that extremely seriously.

We grappled at an early stage with how we would deal with, say, sponsorships from major food companies. Because that’s always the first thing people say when they talk about the fact that we want to build a food museum. They’re like, “Oh, you should get Coca-Cola to fund the museum or Kraft—they have money.”

Sure enough, we’ve been approached by quite a few big food companies, but in every instance, we’ve said no. We made the decision early on for our educational program to not accept funding from companies that have a commercial interest in that particular subject.

So we won’t ever do a Starbucks coffee exhibition or a ConAgra grains exhibition. It’s not because we’re setting ourselves up in an adversarial position. It’s more like I view MOFAD’s relationship to these companies as being journalistic. We need to maintain that arm’s length distance.

To keep your credibility as an objective observer.

Yes, exactly. I understand that these ethical questions are being raised for museums across all disciplines, but it’s something we feel acutely because of the very nature of food and drink as such a part of daily life.


Keep up with MOFAD’s development on the Web (mofad.org), Facebook (MOFADinfo) and Twitter (@MOFAD). To download a free PDF of CFM’s TrendsWatch 2015, go to futureofmuseums.org.

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