A librarian, a linguist and an historian walk into a bar…
…which immediately empties as people try to escape the inevitable smug but still dull punchline.
In this case, though, the bar is actually a museum which was so totally the opposite of smug and dull that no one was trying to leave. Unfortunately the librarian, linguist and historian were real enough, but they mostly kept to themselves and only diminished the quality of the exhibition a little bit.
As a history lover (can I stop calling myself a historian now? There surely aren’t enough letters after my name to qualify), I have quite a particular set of criteria that I think need to be met in order for a museum or exhibition to be graded ‘awesome’. For those that are wondering – the grading scale goes ‘awesome’, ‘good for a rainy day’, ‘would pass through it to get to the loos’ and ‘would rather be on Friday after school detention duty’.
A museum should be three things to the visitors that go there: academic but also accessible, engaging, and a bit of an indulgence. I want to leave feeling like I’ve learnt something that even if not immediately pub quiz useful to know, still feels good to have learnt it.
The Fitzwilliam Museum’s Feast and Fast: the art of food in Europe 1500-1800 manages to fulfill all those criteria and more. Open over the feast and fast periods of Christmas and Lent (nice touch) its aim is to “present[s] novel approaches to understanding the history and culture of food and eating” which it achieves through a visual smorgasbord of recreated food from history, artefacts, original documents and the obligatory paintings of naked women lounging around bowls of semi peeled fruit.
If you’d like a more comprehensive and slightly less irreverent review of the exhibition then check out this review. If you just want to know what a swan tattoo is and ruminate on whether Adam really needed a fig leaf that reached down to his knees, read on.
The first thing you notice is the 4 foot pineapple installation outside the exhibition by Bompas & Parr, who describe themselves as experts in “multi-sensory experience design.” They sound super cool but I don’t really know what “multi-sensory experience design” means, though that’s probably OK because I doubt I’m the sort of target audience they’re going for. The three of us enjoyed the jarring nature of a giant modern pineapple squatting in the manicured grounds of the museum and did some very uncool selfies in-front of it, shattering all the pineapple’s street cred with each chin-heavy/grimacing shot we took.
The first wow factor hit as soon as we stepped into the main exhibition. A recreation of an early 1600s banquet greeted audiences square on and my first thought as I gazed at it was ‘well, thank God we didn’t bring my daughter’. I didn’t know this, but in 17th century England ‘banquet’ meant a formal dinner but could also mean a sweet course afterwards. The food historian Ivan Day made everything on the table out of sugar paste after the Renaissance custom whereby very, very, very rich (like, so unbelievably rich I could just keep writing the word very over and over again) would get their chefs to deceive guests by disguising food as something else. So on this table the food-stands, plates, walnuts, bacon and eggs and gloves were made out of sugar. This would have confused and delighted guests – the entertainment element of 17th century Come Dine With Me. We did wonder whether, when they were setting all this up, any of them were tempted to just lick a bit of it or eat one of the sugar almonds, and what the penalty might have been if they were caught. Had my daughter been with us no doubt we’d have found out.
Already confused and delighted, we moved on to the swan tattoos. Proper Historians would call them ‘swan registers’, but since there wasn’t a Proper Historian to be found, we continued making fun of a centuries old custom. In the later middle ages swans were bred as status symbols and by 1482 a law was passed that said all unmarked white swans found in common waters were automatically property of the king. Cue swan owners throughout England branding their birds in an effort to stop this very peculiar form of taxation. The bills of the swans were etched according to the symbol of their owners and registers of each symbol were kept track of. In 1570 the Order of Swannes decreed that anyone caught tampering with any of the tattoos, or adding their symbol onto an unmarked swan without permission would be thrown into prison for a year.
Speaking of swans, the second wow factor came in the form of a Baroque Feasting Table where I counted a swan, a pheasant, a peacock and a partridge (stuffed and with gilded eyes and beaks) decorating a table groaning under silverware, fruits and seafood. I can’t really think of anything funny to say about this bit – it was just a truly extraordinary display of decadence and gluttony. If it’s true that throughout history humans have had a very anxious relationship with food – with the poor always questioning ‘where’s the next meal coming from?’ and the wealthy thinking ‘this tastes revolting but shows I’m rich so should I serve it?’ (the answer was always yes) – then whoever prepared this banquet was clearly in the bathroom when humans were getting their food anxiety handed out. Even the tableware – the knives, glasses and tablecloths – screamed wealth. Break a mug at this dinner party and you’ll be repaying the hosts with your annual salary. The curators had lit the whole thing beautifully and it looked exactly like a painting, I found that my eyes couldn’t stay still and kept skipping from one shiny object to the next, which maybe says more about my ability to appreciate art than anything else.
By now it was time for some pictures. Now, I am not a huge fan of art. I firmly fall into the camp of if-I-can-do-it-it’s-not-art. Luckily, most arty things are beyond me, so fans of blobs of primary colour on canvases can rest easy that I won’t be picking a fight with you. At least, not until I’ve done the photo shoot for my own unmade bed. To make the pictures go a bit quicker we played a game of bingo, which if you’re ever stuck in a gallery with people who know about art (and want you to know that they know about art), is a great way to stop yourself from turning yourself inside out from boredom. On our bingo list was: man leering at buxom cook while she dithers, dead pheasant, fruit used as a modesty item, small child with plate of food balanced precariously on their head while adults cavort inappropriately behind them and people gazing at an apple. We also had a bonus round – in honour of the icon that is Mary Beard – called ‘Is it Art or Is It F***ing?’ which I won when I found a Cezanne.
Amazingly, we didn’t find much on the bingo list (apart from the previously mentioned massive fig leaves which indicated Adam needed a doctor, so Eve probably did him a favour getting them out of that garden.) What I did find, however, was a couple of images that fell within the cliched ‘women and food’ category but that really made me laugh. The first depicted an older woman who looked decidedly pissed off, fannying about with some fruit. When I looked closer I found that maybe the reason she looked so cross was that the artist, David Teniers (1610-1690) had entitled it ‘An Old Woman Peeling An Apple’. The second image, by Godfried Schalcken (1643-1706), was of a young woman holding out a waffle and was imaginatively called ‘A lady holding a plate with a waffle’. It was apparently meant to be sensuous and seductive, but that was lost on me and it just made me feel hungry instead. I shared a fun moment with one of the exhibition attendants when I reached out to point at the weirdly modern looking waffle and he lunged forward to stop me, thinking I was going to smear my greasy not-a-proper-historian fingers all over it. I mean, it was fun for me, probably less so for him.
Another item of note included the 1510-11 inventory of Margaret Beaufort’s expenses for a feast for the winding up of her estate where over £1000 in today’s money was spent on meat – including our trusty friend the swan. I set a new life goal: get so famous that one day people would pore over my weekly Sainsbury’s receipt, encased in glass and softly lit from above while a little plaque solemnly informed people that in this week alone my household had consumed two boxes of Coco Pops and a crate of sausage rolls (you have to know who to ask…)
So, what did I gain from this visit? Well, firstly I got some brilliant ideas for future cooking experiments – if you need me over the weekend I’ll be waist deep in the river dressed as a swan going ‘quack quack’ in en effort to lure them into my net. As well as this I also got to try the sugariest coffee cake known to man in the museum cafe, it’s been two days and I’m still shaking as I write.
I also got a properly in depth understanding of where a lot of the foods we enjoy fit into history and our culture as well as an appreciation of why some foods have certain elevated statuses while others are seen as being lowly and modest. For example, once you understand that the medieval Catholic Church decreed that no meat was to be consumed on holy days, which accounted for about 40% of the year, you kind of get why banquets where hogs were paraded round with apples in their mouths were such entertainment and reserved for the rich, who wanted to celebrate the occasions where meat was permitted in a way that separated them from the poor.
This exhibition was not only academic and accessible, it was also incredibly entertaining and I definitely felt like I’d had a proper treat by the end of it. Even the librarian, who admitted museums weren’t really her thing, couldn’t stop herself from getting excited over Isaac Newton’s notebook showing a record of all the snacks he had bought while studying as a student at Cambridge. Every little detail was well thought out, from the moody lighting which made you feel quite alone and allowed you to focus despite being surrounded by people, to the exhibition-inspired kid’s paintings at the end (hey, it guaranteed those parents will visit at least!) There really was something for everyone, as long as ‘everyone’ doesn’t include toddlers. Maybe don’t bring them, unless you’re really good at repairing sugar paste castles.
Feast and Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500-1800
26th November 2019 – 26th April 2020
The Fitzwilliam Museum