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If you’re in New York between now and August, you'd do well to set aside a couple of hours for “Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture,” an ambitious and engrossing exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History.
The show, which opened in November, features everything you’d expect from one of the world’s great museums – dioramas (a 16th-century Aztec market, the dining rooms of Jane Austen and Kublai Khan), historical artifacts (cooking utensils, antique cookbooks), wall displays (the history of agriculture, foods of the future), 3-D models (square watermelons, a high-rise farm), explanatory videos (the global food system, food and ritual), interactive stations (a scent generator, a digital stovetop) and even a working kitchen.
The museum bills the exhibition as comprehensive, but of course, it isn’t. As the subtitle suggests, food intersects with so many other social and natural systems that it’s impossible to cover the territory completely. Still, the exhibition manages to touch on an impressively wide range of topics, from plant and animal breeding to farmland ecology, storage, trade, waste, hunger, obesity and the neurobiology of taste.
Several of the installations remind us how dramatically the human pursuit of food has altered the natural world. Vast tracts of land have been sculpted for farming. Forests have been razed. Rivers and lakes have been drained and diverted. Animal species have been hunted to extinction. Domestic plants and animals look nothing like their wild ancestors – and their living conditions are equally unrecognizable.
While there’s plenty of attention to history, there’s also a thread running through the exhibition about current and future problems. Erin Betley of the museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation told me the curators tried not to get mired in “tar pit issues” like genetic engineering and the influence of large corporations on food and agriculture policies. But they do acknowledge the controversies. One display presents the pros and cons of various food production systems, while a talking-heads video (“Thoughts on the Future of Food”) looks at the challenge of climate change and speaks warily of quick technical fixes.
“Our Global Kitchen” is more a tasting menu than a theme meal. But it’s a filling and enriching one – and there is, I think, a carryout message. Food may be the product of enormous, complex global systems, but we all play a role. As the introductory video tells us, “What you choose to eat shapes the planet.”