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At museums around the world, a focus on food

There have been more ambitious and thoughtfully curated exhibitions world-wide in recent years

Participants in a culinary workshop at the Cité Internationale de la Gastronomy, the first cultural centre fully devoted to gastronomy which was recently opened in Lyon, France.


THE French city of Lyon is hoping to cement its reputation as the cradle of French gastronomy with the opening of a new cultural gastronomy centre that is being described as the first of its kind in France, and the largest of its kind in the world.

Six years in the making, the Cité Internationale de la Gastronomie de Lyon (International City of Gastronomy) opened its doors last month inside the Grand Hôtel-Dieu, a former hospital that dates back to the 12th century.

Spanning four floors and 43,055 square feet, the centre, which cost 20 million euros (S$30 million), is designed to be an interactive and sensorial experience for visitors.

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There's the smell of chicken bubbling away in a casserole pot wafts through the space dedicated to traditional Lyonnaise cuisine, while a virtual exhibit recreates the sights and sounds of an open-air farmers market.

The centre's opening adds to an already rich gastronomic landscape in Lyon: the city is home to Bocuse d'Or, the real-life "Iron Chef" international cooking competition; bouchons, traditional Lyonnaise restaurants; and celebrated chef Paul Bocuse, who died last year.

Florent Bonnetain, project director and general manager, said that the culinary centre aims to draw on the building's heritage as a former hospital by exploring the connections between food and nutrition, along with sustainability, economics and international food culture.

"We are looking at the subject of gastronomy as a whole," he explained. "There are thematic food museums around the world, but here we wanted to take gastronomy and approach it from a cultural and educational point of view."

Thematic museums centered around a single food item have been around for decades, be it chocolate, ice cream, french fries or ramen.

Then there are the branded food museums from SPAM, Guinness, Coca-Cola or Jell-O. They can tend to be cartoonish or self-promotional, and verge on kitsch.

But in recent years, conversations around food security, climate change and public health have led to more ambitious and thoughtfully curated exhibitions around the world.

After first launching as a mobile exhibition in 2013, the Museum of Food and Drink found a permanent space in a 5,000-square-foot studio in New York City in 2015.

It has explored natural and artificial flavours in the food industry, the evolution of Chinese-American restaurants and, next February, will open an exhibition on the contributions of African-American chefs, farmers and producers to food culture.

The executive director, Peter Kim, began pitching the idea in 2012, and said he was met primarily with scepticism and "bewilderment".

But since then, he's noticed a sea change in the museum's reception, and the way people think about food, thanks to a confluence of factors: food-related public policies, immigration, media attention, climate change and growing interest inside academia.

"All these things feed into each other and reinforce an understanding of food as being much more than just gustatory experience. Instead, there's an understanding that when you take a bite of something, you plug into the world every time," he added.

International media interest also helped the Disgusting Food Museum - which opened last fall as a temporary exhibition in Malmo, Sweden - become permanent this January and organise pop-up versions globally.

Despite its name, the exhibition is meant less to provoke revulsion, but to challenge people's notions of what's edible and what's not, as one person's trash, be it maggot-infested cheese or bull testicles, could be another person's delicacy.

Moreover, curators point out that changing our ideas of disgust could help us embrace more environmentally sustainable foods - notably bugs and insects - in the future.

In Europe in recent months, the Museum of Mankind in Paris opened the exhibition "I Eat, Therefore I Am", exploring the evolutionary, ecological and cultural role of food in civilisation, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London just wrapped up "Food: Bigger than the Plate", which looked at urban farming, gastronomy, politics and sustainability.

At the Cité, working kitchens, experimental laboratories and spaces for conferences and debates are designed to enrich the visitor experience.

The overall concept mirrors Bordeaux's Cité du Vin, a wine museum which opened in 2016 and explores winemaking throughout civilisation and also hosts industry conferences.

"We know that gastronomy is a big tourist attraction for Lyon," Mr Bonnetain noted. "With the museum, our hope is that visitors will be able to experience gastronomy differently here. We want to be a complementary experience to restaurants in Lyon." NYTIMES