Francesca Du Brock, Chief Curator; Julia O’Malley, Guest Curator; Elizabeth Hodges Snyder, Guest Curator; Julie Decker, Director; Ryan Kenny, Director of Exhibitions; Jim Kohl, Exhibition & A/V Manager
From fish and fiddleheads to salmonberries and Spam®, what gets plated in Alaska feeds the collective identity as much as it does individual palates. This 4,200-square-foot exhibition looks at how Alaskans connect with each other and the land through food, presenting an expanded view of the vital cultural role food plays in the North. The exhibition design references the quintessential Alaskan home kitchen of the 70’s, diverse community and tradition, innovation, climate and the future of food in the Arctic. The project was envisioned as a series of curated interactive spaces that touched upon the lives of everyday Alaskans, with each of the four gallery spaces consisting of designed installations that were dominated by common objects and experiences that were easy to relate to.
What Why How We Eat tells the changing story of food culture in Alaska through filmed interviews, art installations, utensils, tools, recipes and food. The exhibition design provides an accessible space for learning about food within Alaska’s rural and urban communities. In-gallery kitchens, living rooms, and gear sheds are designed to provide an interactive environment for learning about how food is produced and harvested, preserved and shared in ways that would be familiar and accessible to visitors. Narrative content is delivered in each area through a multitude of designed interfaces that are both analog and digital, encouraging visitor engagement. These distinct interaction points include pushing the limits of a museum gallery to include a functioning hydroponic wall system growing mint and lettuces; backlit chest freezer and refrigerator displays; a gear shed with hunting and fishing equipment, a kitchen full of sensor-triggered audio cupboards and drawers with objects displayed, etched cutting boards and vacuumed sealed labels; a living room with shelves full of cookbooks to peruse, video interviews on the television, and framed recipes on the wall; and a grocery store display with self-checkout stations comparing prices of common staples in communities across Alaska. Retooling conventional fixtures for content delivery offers a variety of ways for visitors of all ages to touch and physically interact upon the wide range of food topics.
In addition to the typical self-guided gallery explorations, multiple exhibition spaces are designed to facilitate various gatherings and groups for food-oriented public programming by the Anchorage Museum, its guest curators, and partner organizations. Events include cooking and preservation demonstrations in the gallery ‘kitchen,’ various potluck and food pairing events, and an ongoing sharing of recipes and the memories associated with food on placemats and magnetized to a community bulletin board based on prompts provided by commissioned artists.
The successful design and implementation of the in-gallery motorized hydroponic system stretches the limits of what a museum can do as it impresses upon visitors with its sheer size (~12ft tall) and demonstrates to a broad public what contemporary systems are capable of. The installation provides a surprising and delightful olfactory experience with mint and basil in alternate rotation. Large portions of the harvested lettuce greens are used to feed animals in the Anchorage Museum living collection, which includes turtles and other reptiles. Across from the hydroponic system is a grid display of familiar cold-hardy plants that appear in greenhouses throughout Alaska alongside custom designed seed packets representing lesser known native plants that are harvested for sustenance as well.
Finally, the exhibition increases visitor awareness and reveals the complexity of logistics and reliance upon transportation systems to access food-related items that are often taken for granted by many in the contiguous United States by displaying the retail realities of Alaska communities in a pair of designed installations. True costs of consumer items are displayed for passive comparison on a wall of store shelving with accurate price tags representing five Alaska communities and Seattle, WA as a baseline, while the nearby digital self-checkout interface provides a more visceral experience with an interactive virtual shopping cart and a set budget so that visitors can define their own priorities.