In today’s post, graduate student Samantha Eadie discusses her experiences developing the recent University of Toronto exhibit Mixed Messages: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canada, which we featured here on the Recipes Project in May 2018.
At the conclusion of my first year of graduate studies at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information, I was invited to be a student contributor for the exhibition Mixed Messages: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canada. Having previously served as a Research Assistant for the exhibition’s curator, Dr. Irina Mihalache, I knew this would be a wonderful opportunity to expand my understanding of interpretation and exhibition development. I did not realize at the outset of this project that my participation would teach me about so much more than museological work; most notably about the value of recipes within cultural and historical analysis and their power as interpretive objects.
As one of the graduate research assistants, I undertook a variety of activities in the development of the exhibition, from contributing object interpretation, to designing display case layouts, to managing the projects of the undergraduate research assistants. When working with the undergraduate research assistants, I helped to organize and conduct several interviews (known as oral histories within the heritage field) focused on the history of two well-known Canadian cookbooks. Although the interviews were intended to focus on the cookbooks and the related historic experiences of the authors and their audiences, the personal stories of the narrators came to the fore. Though the cookbooks were discussed in measure, the stories I found most interesting focused on their own diverse culinary experiences, such as the continuation of family food traditions, the thrill of trying new ingredients and recipes, and the simple enjoyment of eating a favorite food. Hearing the words of the narrators left me with a feeling of connectedness, as, regardless of the generational gap that existed between us, I have shared their experiences as food holds deep meaning within my personal memories. Since food and cookbooks are part of our everyday experiences and social interactions, hearing these stories can ignite meaning and memory-making in a wide audience.
Establishing connections and developing meaning are important features of many contemporary museum exhibitions. This is achieved through the interpretation of museum objects (in this instance, cookbooks and ephemera) and archival records (including photographs and written documents), which intentionally draw on past experiences to create these memorable moments for audience members within the exhibition space. The inclusion of the aforementioned culinary stories in Mixed Messages, which were presented as both textual and oral content, served as one element of meaningful engagement. By focusing on the shared experiences of the narrators and utilizing the well-recognized medium of the cookbook, the curators were able to discuss the challenging topic of women’s agency in historic Canada, thus, critically reframing those memories and our engagement with the culinary content.
Having participated in this exhibition project has changed my understanding of Canadian cuisine. It has encouraged me to reflect upon my own use of cookbooks, recipes and ingredients, as well as the role family traditions serve within my own culinary experience. Moving forward in my career I will incorporate learned museological techniques into my practice, while the culinary and historical knowledge will continue to influence my personal life.
Mixed Message: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canadawas on display at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto from May 22nd, – August 17th, 2018. You can learn more about the exhibition by reading curator Liz Ridolfo’s blog post.