SXSW 2015 panel: Exploring the Museum of Food and Drink

Date/time: 3:30 p.m. Monday

The panelists: Dave Arnold, founder of the Museum of Food and Drink; Eliza Barclay, NPR reporter and editor; Emma Boast, program director for the Museum of Food and Drink; and Peter Kim, executive director of the Museum of Food and Drink

A SouthBites interactive panel at SXSW took a first look at the Museum of Food and Drink, a multi-million dollar project with an anticipated opening of 2019. It would be the first major museum devoted to food in the U.S.

Photo by Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. A SouthBites interactive panel at SXSW took a first look at the Museum of Food and Drink, a multi-million dollar project with an anticipated opening of 2019. It would be the first major museum devoted to food in the world.

The gist: Museums are devoted to art, science, history, sports and so many more specialized subjects within those disciplines, but so far there isn’t one big, independent institution specifically devoted to food and drink, Barclay said in her introduction of the panel. That’s where the in-the-works Museum of Food and Drink comes in: Arnold envisions his, Boast and Kim’s project to become the first major food and drink museum in the world, an ambitious undertaking that has an anticipated opening of 2019 in New York. Currently, the trio comprise the main staff of the nonprofit that will one day become the full-blown brick-and-mortar temple to all things food.

Arnold (creator and director of the Department of Culinary Technology at the International Culinary Center and recent author of a book about the art and science of the cocktail) said he first got the idea to open the interactive museum after a visit to the American Museum of Natural History, where an exhibit on Vietnam, with a cafe serving “slip-shod Vietnamese dishes,” sparked a big idea.

“We need a museum that teaches culture through food,” he said. It was a lightning bolt moment for him because, as he told the panel audience in his fast-talking way, “Food is a lens through which we can explore so many aspects of our lives.”

He coaxed Kim and Boast on board three years ago, but they still have a rather large hurdle to overcome. “A proper food museum should be the size of the Smithsonian or the Natural History Museum, but no one is just going to hand over 600 million to do it,” Kim said. The actual price tag for their vision is $25 million — not an easily attainable number, either.

The takeaway: The passionate, witty trio has a plan in place to make New York’s next great cultural institution happen, Kim said, which includes a traveling exhibition they already funded through Kickstarter and launched for crowds in 2013.

The star of this exhibit is a large, loud machine that doesn’t look like it has anything to do with food at first glance. They acquired a 3,200 lb. grain puffing machine after brainstorming ideas for exhibits and deciding that telling the story of breakfast cereal, one of the first heavily marketed foods in this country, would also help tell the story of food in industrialized America. The machine, Barclay said, was key to the production of many cereals, from Cheerios to Cocoa Puffs. “We have this thing to think for our cereal floating in milk, or to crunch,” she said.

One day, the puffing machine will become one of the anchor exhibits of the museum; in the meantime, it’s made for a riveting show for the Museum of Food and Drink founders. They talk about the history of cereal before turning on the machine for audiences, who are treated to “a multi-sensory experience,” Arnold said. “They hear the machine, they see it produce the cereal and they can then taste the cereal.”

That fully immersive, interactive show is at the heart of Arnold’s vision for the museum. He wants to make food fun — a tall order in this country considering that many of us, he said, think that food is an encumbrance of sorts, a means of survival that should be purchased as cheaply as possible. That attitude is, thankfully, changing. As people’s curiosity about food as more than just a form of nourishment increases, so will the need for an intellectual and cultural institution about food.

“We have a greater burden than the other museums out there because we have to provide people with unbiased information about a subject matter that directly affects their health, their everyday lives,” he said.

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