Friday, June 26, 2009

T-Rex of Museum Awesomeness: the Alimentarium

Planetarium: pictures of stars on a screen.
Imaginarium: overpriced '90s educational kiddie store.

Natch, neither of these compare with the four-room beaut of a particular museum in Vevey, Switzerland.

When the woman at Vevey's tourist center told us to walk down the river until we hit a giant fork and then to turn left, Erin scoffed at the pun that went over my head. But she was right, just like any city official; lo and behold:

(The whole Vevey setup reminded me of home, actually - the fork being a low-key version of Spoonbridge and the lakeside town being the mountainous, gorgeous older sister of Wayzata.)

We turned left, and walked into the Alimentarium's garden; rows of vegetables - including corn native to three different continents - lined the walkway.

The entry foyer featured wallpaper covered in French verbs for different cooking - and eating - techniques, but the museum only had four major rooms: cooking, eating, consuming and digesting.
Erin and I led ourselves to a kitchen where the cooks at the in-house restaurant were prepping for the days' meal (souffles for two kiddie birthday parties). Surrounding the actual working equipment were displays of pots, pans and ovens, separated by global region. We joked around about photographing the notes, because they had tips on how to properly braise meat.

On the other side of the room were smaller "artifacts" - including these jell-o molds. Yes, you can get your asparagus jell-o to look like asparagus -- this would have been an easy cheat for the Brooklyn jell-o mold contest.

Erin, always the curator, was impressed by the unique setup of the Alimentarium collection: things in the eating room were displayed non-linearly, but in a tower, with a photo of the corresponding era that the items were from.

On the other hand, I was impressed with the fake food. The whole museum reminded me of Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, which has a floor that is farming themed and, more importantly, filled with fake food.

As a child, I was always fascinated with fake and miniature food: things that resembled what you ate, but whose shape (and in the '90s, scent) remained long after you had its doppelganger. I couldn't stand dollhouses, the ghostly empty eyes of dolls who were in there, but I loved their kitchens; I received a Kitchen Littles grocery set for Christmas one year - which my cousin promptly destroyed. It's a little shameful to say that I have never quite fully forgiven and forgotten this particular incident on my beloved two-inch high fake slushie machine.

In any case, I marveled at the giant food pyramid (outdated!):

and the milk 'n' honey wafers from a pharoah's tomb:

years and years later, a remnant (of bread!) from the Irish famine:

and most definitely the display that showed what a "real person" should eat, five times a day, which finally legitimized elevenses (although this picture effectively says apples, not bagels, for Brain Break).

Erin and I also regressed and played the kiddie games, which were nutritional anthropology variations of Guess Who and Go Fish.

By far, the most photographed part of the museum; we love our processed food and took lots of photos with our preferred cravings (not all of them are here).
As an economics major, I really enjoyed checking out how payment methods for groceries changed over time.

There were nine stations, each with some interactive video or ridiculous faux phone conversation, but the real star was the walls of the consumption room, which contained plexiglas'd food items from a typical Swiss grocery store.

There was a giant chocolate cup. The photo had to be taken.

The Nestle Room
The center of the museum is actually the Nestle room, where the Nestle board met in the late 19th century; as I've previously mentioned, Henry Nestle, the founder, was born in Vevey. The conference room is filled with information about old mergers and acquisitions as well as some Nestle memorabilia. A TV is set to loop old Nestle television commercials.

I should note that Nestle is mentioned frequently in the Consuming room as well - no other company is really represented in the sample. It's clear when you look at the three displays of chocolate history in the Alimentarium; only Nesquik and its previous incarnations are seen. In this sense, the Alimentarium especially reminded me of the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, which is covered in Pillsbury material despite attempts to represent a unified Midwest mill scene.

The scientific part of the museum (the temporary exhibit on the top floor was about the five senses and was rather consisted of vials of phenol red and inflatable balloons that represented ear and nose cells). Lots of self-quizzes about our eating and cooking habits, and a giant hamster wheel that was, admittedly, rather hard to jog in. Digesting concluded with a 3D film, highly reminiscent of the infamous Life Sciences 1a intro - we watched ten minutes of sugar molecules disappear down animated character's esophaguses and sweep around the body.

All in all, the museum was bliss for a food lover - probably not a sophisticated foodie (but you know they'd have wanted to run the hamster wheel too). Especially good for those of us who like to know where our food's from and who like our history laced - nay, saturated - with food. For those of you thinking about visiting: without all the photo ops, the museum would probably have taken an hour and a half.

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