The Past, Present, and Future of Museums of Food, Agriculture, and Rural Life

AHA Session 251
Sunday, January 6, 2019: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Stevens C-4 (Hilton Chicago, Lower Level)
R. Douglas Hurt, Purdue University
R. Douglas Hurt, Purdue University
Theresa McCulla, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
Debra Reid, The Henry Ford
Cameron L. Saffell, Texas Tech University

Session Abstract

As western societies became increasingly urban and industrial, concerned citizens and governments organized places to preserve rural vernacular architecture, artifacts, and customs. From Skansen, Sweden, widely recognized as the world’s oldest open-air folk museum, to the opening of Brooklyn’s Museum of Food and Drink in 2015 we have engaged the history of food and fiber and the people who produce and consume. These museums have forged new techniques in pedagogy and presentation with exhibits that conveyed seasonal change during “The Farmer’s Year” at Cooperstown, New York, and the rhythms of a celebrity chef in Julia Child’s kitchen installation at the National Museum of American History. But these museum innovations have been difficult to sustain. Multiple problems have dogged museums of rural life, food, and agriculture, including declining attendance, rising costs of experiences such as living history interpretation, the problem of interpreting large objects at an appropriate scale, and the ongoing challenge of demonstrating relevance in a world where farming tends to happen somewhere else. As we confront ongoing issues of food security and hunger, health, technical innovation, climate change, and environmental threats, how do we best position museums or exhibitions of food, agriculture, and rural life? Three scholars will provide an assessment of the field, highlighting the continuity of problems and issues in the business of interpreting rural life and food, drink, and fiber production as well as new challenges. Scholars interested in rural and agricultural history, historic sites, museums, and public history will find this session relevant.
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