The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals, an exhibit on view at The Detroit Institute of Arts through April 16, 2017, offers a near-perfect illustration of the manner in which museum education can support standards-based classroom instruction across the curriculum. The high-interest focus of the exhibit – Food – takes up a topic that has been a part of the American school curriculum for more than a century, a sure-fire subject used to interest students in the complexities of chemistry, biology, and botany, not to mention the visual arts, literature, and history.
In the exhibit, lavish court banquets and civic celebrations from the 16th through the 19th centuries are captured in finely detailed prints, rare books, and serving manuals. Elaborate banquet settings, including intricately designed table monuments made of sugar, flowers, and fruit are brought to life at the DIA by sculptor and culinary historian, Ivan Day who has created a monumental sugar sculpture based on an 18th-century print, “Palace of Circe.” Unlike guests at Renaissance buffets, DIA visitors will not be able to nibble on a frieze from Day’s architectural wonder, but they are allowed to photograph the sugar-paste palace, set on an 8-foot table and surrounded by creatures from Circe’s bestiary. Nearby, visitors are treated to an object history of Edible Monuments. An enclosed case contains baskets and flowers sculpted from sugar paste, intricately carved confectioner’s tools, along with small bowls holding the natural pigments used to color the sugar flowers – indigo for the color blue, saffron for yellow, and, as in the early dyes used for wool, cochineal beetles for rich, fuchsia red.
Two floors above The Edible Monument exhibit, a special exhibit, Bitter/Sweet: Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate tells the story of the cultural and commercial impact these caffeinated beverages had upon European society following their introduction between 1585 and 1640. A Renaissance version of “The Story of Stuff,” Bitter/Sweet uses tableware, prints, paintings, and silver to chronicle the social and design revolutions that accompanied the commercialization of coffee, tea, and chocolate. The special exhibit includes examples of the finely crafted European silver and porcelain beverage sets that replaced beer steins and jugs on the tables of the elite and the rising middle class. True to its name, the exhibit also tells a bitter story – a history of the human cost of producing the raw materials for coffee, tea, and chocolate as well as the sugar that altered the bitter taste of the beverages and ushered in an era of colonization and plantation slavery. Like The Edible Monument exhibit, Bitter-Sweet is a visual history of social and cultural transformation which captures the global interconnections of food culture.
From Museum Exhibit to Classroom Instruction
Throughout K-12 classrooms, the interconnections that characterize the two DIA exhibits are becoming increasingly common in integrated, standards-based curricula. New reading and math standards align with grade-level content expectations in science and social studies, while recently developed state and national arts standards support the goals and objectives of core subject areas, all giving new meaning to a well-rounded education.
Not surprisingly, the content of the DIA exhibits aligns especially well with the visual arts standards and the arts assessments developed by the Michigan Arts Education Instruction and Assessment (MAEIA) Project. For example, in the MAEIA assessment, “Celebrate! Create Art to Honor People and Events,” middle school students are asked to analyze images and descriptions of holiday celebrations and identify ways that people use the arts to express their beliefs and celebrate important people and events in their lives. Students then create a new holiday honoring a person, group of people, or an event of their choice. Like all MAEIA assessments, “Celebrate!” is aligned with National Core Arts Standards, in this case, the expectation that students will develop the ability to “Relate artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural, and historical contexts to deepen understanding.”
For visual arts teachers, the DIA exhibits provide unique opportunities to prime students’ imaginations and deepen their understanding of the social, cultural, and historical contexts of the arts, if not with a field trip, then by viewing images and information about the exhibits made available though the DIA and the Getty Research Institute. In addition to informative blog posts and video-taped lectures, the Getty offers an interactive Mobile Tour: The Art of Food, along with many images from the related exhibit, Eat, Drink, and Be Merry.
With the assessment titled, “From Food Pyramid to Still Life,” MAEIA takes an integrative approach to arts assessment, asking students to create still life drawings that include food from each of the six food groups represented in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Pyramid, or from the five groups included in the U.S.D.A.’s My Plate. Designed for upper elementary students, the assessment enables teachers to evaluate students’ understanding of compositional principles, while reinforcing their knowledge of nutritional science. At the DIA’s “Edible Monument” exhibit, students might test their knowledge of the food groups by categorizing some of the 1,445 dishes served at the coronation banquet for England’s King James II. With hog’s tongue, pickled oysters, bologna, pistachio cream, and more than a thousand additional dishes from which to choose, the King’s plate was no doubt full, indeed.
Amid images of grandiose feasts and lavish displays of silver and porcelain, it’s sugar that is certain to capture students’ attention and provide a gateway to standards-based instruction across the curriculum. Beginning with Ivan Day’s sugar-paste sculpture of Circe’s Temple, “Edible Monuments” provides a sweet introduction to the myths that are integral to social studies and reading standards. In Michigan’s new Social Studies Standards, “social understanding” is defined, in part, by the ability of students to “Analyze classical civilizations and empires and their lasting impact.” Students are also expected be able to “describe how trade integrated cultures and influenced the economy within empires,” a topic that informs the “Bitter/Sweet” exhibit.
Like the new social studies standards, the Common Core sets reading standards that include knowledge of myths and legends. Beginning in grade three, students are expected to become increasingly proficient in “Recount[ing] stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures [and] determin[ing] the central message, lesson, or moral.” At the DIA, Day’s sugar characters from Greek mythology, including figures of Hercules, Circe, Diana, and Minerva introduce students to mythological characters, moral tales, and illusions that appear throughout history and literature. From Circe’s sugar-paste bestiary of gluttonous soldiers transformed into pigs, it can be a short leap, for example, to the mythological allusions in the Harry Potter series – to Circe who appears on the Chocolate Frog Cards as a famous witch or to Harry’s gluttonous cousin, Dudley Dursley who sprouts a pig tail.
Sugar is not likely to be a preferred topic for lessons in nutritional science; however, as San Francisco’s Exploratorium Museum demonstrates, the Science of Sugar is “a fascinating and precise science,” and a whole lot of fun. At the Exploratorium website, students can explore the molecular structure of sugar, grow Monstrous Marshmallows, or watch educators compete on The Iron Scientist, with the secret ingredient – Sugar!
Whether meeting physical science performance expectations that require students to model the atomic composition of simple molecules or pushing the boundaries of the life sciences with studies of cross-species, or xenotransplantation with pig organs, the study of sugar, as presented in the DIA and Getty Exhibits serves as an enticing topic for learning labs designed to meet Next Generation Science Standards.
From the arts to Day’s zoological oddities, the DIA exhibits cross the centuries and discipline boundaries to provide unique ‘texts’ for standards-based classroom instruction and the independent research projects important to self-directed learning. Through the generosity of the DIA and the Getty Research Institute, curriculum content is brought to life for students everywhere – through field trips to the DIA and virtual trips on the Internet. With an eye on standards-based assessments – whether intended, as in the MAEIA project, as formative, summative, or interim measures of progress, teachers can turn the exhibits into food for thought as nourishing as a banquet fit for King James II.