Our Global Kitchen Whets Appetites

Embarking on Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture, an ambitious exhibition on view now at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, is like standing before a sumptuous buffet—one with so many offerings, you find yourself making plans for seconds.

The exhibition invites a closer look at the environmental, economic, socio-cultural, industrial, and scientific dimensions of food—from its origins in the field, factory, or lab to the journey to our kitchen tables. It serves up the recommended daily allowance of detail on relevant issues, such as food waste, global malnutrition, and scarcity, and includes the science behind feeding a growing population on a finite planet. It provides a taste of what we humans are doing wrong—and what we’re doing right.

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But why bring a food exhibition to a natural history museum? “Human health is one of the core components of our museum’s mission. The exhibition shows how our health and diets are inextricably linked, and we believe this is an important story to tell,” says Joel Alpern, director of exhibits at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Our Global Kitchen explores how humans manipulate biology and food systems. Tinkering with nature has enabled us to enjoy bigger strawberries and seedless watermelons throughout the year. That kohlrabi you received in your CSA bag has its origins as brassica oleracea, a wild cabbage, and was cultivated over time into broccoli, bok choy, and romanesco. Human ingenuity is responsible for much of what we’re consuming in our modern diet.

“The history of humans is very much a history of food, and we see this in the evolution of our diet over time” Alpern says.

The exhibition also addresses the negative impact of human intervention. Wild Atlantic cod was a much larger species before becoming overfished; now, the population is about half its previous size. Convenience food might seem like a good idea, but a typical family of four tosses out more than 1,600 pounds of food and packaging waste annually. More than 30% of food grown or produced is never consumed. Beef production, for example, is one of the costliest and waste-producing industries, using valuable water, grain, and land resources.

As the world’s population grows larger and hungrier, scientists forge ahead with new technologies, such as vertical farming, testtube meat, and artificial oceans.

Although Our Global Kitchen delves into many serious issues surrounding food, the exhibition is not without fun. Ponder the evolution of the modern fork, square-shaped watermelons, or a “typical breakfast” of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps during training. Visitors will also see a depiction of the last meal that Otzi, a Tyrolean wanderer, enjoyed 5,000 years ago before freezing to death in the Alps.

A collection of cookbooks from around the world reminds us that the significance and ritual of preparing and sharing a meal is common among cultures. A video titled Food, Faith, and Festivals peers into the food traditions of Chinese New Year, Ramadan, Ganesh Chathurthi, and Oktoberfest.

Our Global Kitchen runs through January 8, 2017. For more information, visit http://www.cmnh.org.