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Capturing the Spirit of the Field Museum

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Journey Distillery's Field Museum spirits
Journey Distillery's Field Museum spirits

One of my current projects is helping museums figure out how to develop new mission-related-income streams. In 2016, I helped develop and teach a workshop at which staff from natural history museums worked on ideas to create products and services based on their research collections. That was a tough assignment, made harder by the fact that had only a few good examples of existing projects to share with attendees. So I was particularly pleased to hear about a project between the Field Museum of Natural History and Journeyman Distillery to create and market Field Gin—a spirit based on botanicals that were displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. When I called Megan Williams, the Field Museum’s Director of Business Enterprise, to learn more, I discovered that the Journeyman project is only a small part of a bigger story. In today’s post, Megan shares the Field Museum’s approach to tying food, and drink, to the museum’s mission, research, and collections.

–Elizabeth Merritt, VP Strategic Foresight and Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums


Six years ago, the Museum’s restaurants were up for renewal of contract. At the time our food service was provided by a national franchise and a chain restaurant. I saw this as an opportunity to showcase the museum’s identity by designing restaurants unique and specific to the Field Museum. I asked, “What do we as a museum and an institution and community stand for and represent?” In the design process we focused on honoring our past, while thinking about how museum visitors could use our space more creatively. We had space constrictions due to the building being protected. In designing the Field Bistro, we thought about what kind of social experience we wanted to create. We wanted the space to invoke a sense of community and give museum guests an opportunity to talk to other museum guests. We created spaces for communal tables and built a bar area. The Field Bistro has a contemporary design that respects and highlights the beautiful history and architecture of our building.

Because part of the Field Museum’s mission is to collect, discover, document, and research specimens, and to conserve our world’s resources, we wanted our new food service to be environmentally sound. Along with a consultant, we wrote a 10-year tiered sustainability plan that the food operator was contractually obligated to follow. Typically a food operator has their own plan, but you wouldn’t necessarily have solid confirmation that it was being put into practice. When we developed the Museum’s sustainable plan, we built in quarterly 3rd party monitoring and reporting to ensure compliance.

When we built the bar and created the liquor program in the Field Bistro, we started thinking about how we would make the bar site-specific and mission-related. We designed it in such a way that it was clear why the bar and the product chosen were there, rather than in any other museum. We have very strong relationships with many vineyards, breweries and distilleries due to the Museum having its own liquor license and purchasing program. Building on those existing relationships, we approached Off Color Brewery and asked if they were interested in working with the Museum to create a trademarked collection of beers. We wanted the first beer to be a ‘forever beer’—one that was highly approachable and would be evergreen in the marketplace. This longevity seemed apropos, as we were naming it Tooth and Claw, after one of our most famous and iconic dinosaurs, SUE the T. rex.

After Tooth & Claw launched successfully, we took Dave Bleitner and John Laffler, the owners of Off Color Brewing, on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Museum’s collections to provide inspiration for the beers they wanted to create next. Dave went on to create Wari, based on his interest in South American beers and brewing techniques. He spent time with Ryan Williams, Field Museum Associate Curator of Archaeological Science & South American Anthropology. Ryan was part of the team of scientists and researchers who discovered an ancient brewery at Cerro Baúl, an area in Peru where the Wari nation lived in A.D. 600. Dave based the beer’s recipe on an analysis of what was in the pots discovered at the excavation in Cerro Baúl. John was interested in Asian styles of beers, so he created QingMing, inspired by artifacts discovered during archaeological digs in Taixi, China and a 400 year old Changzikou tomb. QingMing was named after an ancient Chinese scroll and festival.

Another of our brewery partners is Chicago’s Two Brothers Brewery, which has developed a number of “philanthropic beers” to benefit local nonprofits. For the Field Museum they created Cabinet of Curiosities, with the proceeds going to the museum’s education programs. Another partnership, with Toppling Goliath, started out as potentially contentious (they were initially contacted about a trademark infringement), but quickly turned into a very like-minded relationship. Now we are getting ready to launch a full collaborative beer with Toppling Goliath in the near future that is based off some ancient fruits discovered in our botany collections.

Not every brewery might be a good fit for a collaboration. The company needs to be willing and able to incorporate a partnership beer into their production schedule, and have the ability to market it. However, we realized that there are other candidates for collaboration, such as distilleries! This thought gave rise to our partnership with the Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, MI. In the spirit (excuse the obvious pun) of creating a “Collection of…”, we thought, “What other stories could we tell through product that could be made specifically because of the Field Museum?” In evaluating distilleries as potential partners, we applied what we had learned from working with breweries. In addition to having the desire and ability to partner with the Museum, the distillery needed to share like-minded goals. We found that the people who ran Journeyman were interested in the science and research behind the product, were flexible and creative, had the desire and ability to fit the product into their production schedule and could help market it. The owners visited the Museum, and after a behind-the-scenes tour they decided to focus on the Museum’s botany collection. The Field Gin was inspired by botanicals that were in our collection that came over from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Out of 1500 botanicals, they chose 27 and developed the gin from there. Field Vodka uses local organic Bloody Butcher corn as well as a number of other fruits, such as pineapple and mango for the base. We have the Field Whiskey that uses fig as a sweetener coming out in October. Fig or dates were one of the first sweeteners used by man.

I have frequently been asked, “How do you start a program like this and how do you monetize it?” I recommend that an institution begin by identifying the end goal for such a partnership. Who came up with the idea? Do you have the support of key stakeholders who are critical to the success of the project? The simple answer to the financial question is that although there are ways to monetize through licensing and philanthropic partnerships, you don’t go into this to make money (for numerous reasons). Whichever model you use for partnership, you need to understand the value of your own institution first and then think about how that value translates to other companies.

In any case, financial profits are not the only benefit of a partnership like this. Other important reasons to undertake such a project include enhancing your reputation, reaching new audiences and expanding ways of communicating your institutions goals. For the Field Museum, these partnerships were a way to translate our research into a physical thing, in this case a beer or a spirit, rather than into an exhibition or educational program. This lets us reach a different audience—a group that might not realize the research that the Museum is doing not only educates about the past, but holds a way to incorporate that knowledge into the future.

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