Saturday, July 9, 2011

American Foodways at the National Archives

I was on the Metro on my way to the Pentagon last week to cover an event for my job. While on the way, I passed by an advertisement for a new temporary exhibit at the National Archives. If you've never been to the National Archives' museum and exhibits, there are a few things that remain there consistently. You can see these at the Rotunda and Public Vaults.

This temporary exhibit initially didn't catch my eye until I saw the advertisement again. I saw a poster. It looked something like this. (The rest of the slideshow is available here.) Well, I like pep and vigor. So, I made my way down to the National Archives to check out the exhibit, which closes Jan. 3, 2012.

Exhibit advertisement at the National Archives. (Photo by Matt Sablan)

The worst part of the exhibit is, like the rest of the National Archives, a strict no photography rule. Unlike other exhibit goers, I followed the rule. So, sadly, no pictures of the inside. Their website does have a few slideshows and such that I've linked here and there.

Inside, we have a fairly straightforward, chronological approach to the exhibit, with a few themes highlighted. The high points are at the start and end (like any good display). From learning that Jefferson smuggled rice out of Italy to Ronald Reagan's odd love for Jelly Beans, you can get all sorts of little bits of history. I think this may be the only museum exhibit I've ever been to that has been solely focused on American foodways (I think that's an actual Folkway identified by Sumner/Fischer, mattering which book you want to use. Maybe I just made it up? Oh well.)

But, the best part (for me) of the whole exhibit are the posters. Posters, as most people are familiar with the World War II propaganda posters, are an odd look into a sort of patriotic story-telling that we won't ever see again in the digital age. Propaganda tells a story of an era that is often overlooked in history. It is one thing to know what a people were like, it is equally as instructive to know what people thought they ought to be like.

Sure, you can be enamored with the story of the Poison Squad, but it isn't nearly as visually intriguing as the posters. Even the letter from the Boy Scout isn't as intriguing, despite his cogent discussion on the impact of inflation on his desire for candy (“You can't buy much candy for a nickel now,” ca. 1974.) You can also see the original graphic for eating that became the food pyramid we're all familiar with, and you can then compare that to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new My Plate site. The pyramid has come pseudo-full circle.

The website says you need about 90 minutes, and I was in and out in about that time. But, I was taking notes and doubling back to make sure I had my notes right, so you, probably can go through a lot faster.

Oh, one other thing that you can see that ties into what I was talking about above. I'd never heard about the jelly bean thing before, so the advertisement didn't make any sense to me till today. Though, honestly? Blueberry jelly beans sound disgusting. Even if they have been to space.

One last note – the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival is open until July 11.

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