The Food: Bigger than the Plate exhibition is taking place at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from May until October 2019. The exhibition takes you on a journey through the four zones of Composting; Farming; Trading; and Eating. Here, I highlight what I feel are the most thought-provoking exhibits.
The aim in the “Composting” zone is to encourage you to reimagine waste. Instead of considering waste as disposable and to be forgotten about, either in landfill or oceans, the aim is to think about waste as valuable and beautiful. By doing this, humans become reconnected to ecosystems.
Used coffee grounds from the Victoria and Albert Museum café are used in a bed to grow oyster mushrooms. These mushrooms are used as ingredients in the café, reducing waste and illustrating how food can be grown in the city.
The exhibit also showcases composting efforts from around the world, beyond the walls of the V&A. For example, Mexico has over sixty varieties of native corn. The show exhibits Totomoxtle, a veneer material created from the discarded husks of heirloom corn varieties. It was designed in response to the loss of native varieties of corn following the implementation of industrialized agriculture in the country. This supports the villagers of Tonahuixtla who are replanting heirloom corn varieties by providing them with a second income.
The next section of the exhibition concerns “Farming.” Hedge H.U.G. (Horticultural Urban Growth) encourages you to reimagine a city that is concentrated around the edges of farmland. Instead of having hedges separating fields, buildings are built in their place. People living in cities are fed directly from the land.
Human-animal relationships are explored in the exhibit of ‘This Little Piggy.’ Elaine Tin Nyo followed the life of a piglet named Zelai from birth to death, including the final production into ham. She filmed his journey, and this video is actually very difficult to watch. Zelai’s hams will age two years, which is twice his actual lifespan. The rest of his flesh is preserved in 182 cans, which are on display and contain sausages, meat, and pâté.
The “Trading” zone encourages you to consider how food is transported, traded, and packaged. Uli Westphal created three landscapes designed to be both perfect and unsettling. They are intended to show how food marketing is designed to appeal to our desires to purchase food that is healthy and wholesome. As people are now so detached from agriculture and food production, we have to rely on the information provided to us by the food industry.
Björn Steinar Blumenstein and Johanna Seeleman’s ‘Banana Story’ is an exhibit which tells the story of a banana on its journey from a tree branch in Ecuador to a supermarket in Iceland. The banana was given a passport and an extended label to show its amazing journey. It travelled 8,800km, crossed multiple national borders, and passed through 33 pairs of hands. The accompanying video illustrates how important global shipping has become and how deeply we rely on it for the food we eat.
“Eating” is the final zone in the food story journey. It features three photos of women eating items that make them feel good, as part of a series taken by Sana Badri. They are an act of defiance against a food press that can be elitist, judgmental, and fat phobic, encouraging agency over pleasurable food choices.
This section also features the 1861 publication, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. This book was aimed at the rapidly expanding Victorian middle classes, and includes recipes, advice on childcare, etiquette, entertaining, and how to manage household servants. Curators included it in the exhibition to demonstrate both household management and curating food for a reading public. The curators describe how ‘instructions on how to boil a cabbage rub shoulders with plans for seating guests at the dinner table. The positioning of the book in the exhibition is also interesting as it sits alongside cookbooks which are collections of handwritten or newspaper clippings of recipes accumulated over time.
Juxtaposed with the historical are images from the contemporary in the form of Instagram posts. Instagram enables us to see into the culinary lives of others, as well as celebrating everyday creativity for cooking for loved ones. It also provides businesses with the opportunity to sell food products by posting mouth-watering photos.
The table laid out at the end of the exhibition is designed to provoke deeper engagement and thought about our food, our bodies, and each other. New tableware and food products can prompt us to interact with each other as we eat, sharing food, conversation, and ideas. A plate from Paul Scott‘s project Cumbrian Blues depicts the bleak realities faced by farmers in one of the worse affected areas following the UK’s Foot and Mouth outbreak of 2001. Six million cattle and sheep were culled in an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease.
The highlights I describe provide just a snapshot of the exhibition. These are all designed to encourage us to question what we eat and to ask ourselves if we could eat differently. Eating is not just about health, diet, traditions, and cultures, but also land use, water consumption, energy and transport systems, and human and animal welfare. We have to determine the value we place on quality and the conditions in which our food is produced.