Field Museum's new exhibit focuses on sweet treat's history
10/12/2011 10:00 PM
I’m no chocoholic, but the Field Museum’s “Chocolate Around the World” exhibit is inspiring.
As in, despite the Indian summer Chicago has been graced with, it inspired me to go straight home after my visit and make a huge mug of hot chocolate.
Back at the museum for the first time since 2002, Chocolate Around the World is engaging from the start. Before even entering the exhibit, visitors are handed a free sample of a chocolate bar. That small taste of Toblerone definitely perked my interest in the history of chocolate, something I had barely thought about before.
The exhibit starts with a visit to the tropical rainforests of Central America, teaching visitors about the cacao tree and the seeds it bares. Visitors learn how the Ancient Mayans and Aztecs used the seeds to create a spicy drink, a specialty for kings and a food of the gods.
Visitors are taken across the Atlantic to Europe with Spanish conquerors, where sugar became an important addition to chocolate drinks. Chocolate as a sweet drink inspired chocolate houses, as popular and widespread as coffee houses today. It wasn’t until 1847 that chocolate was formed into bars and even later that milk was added to create a smoother taste.
Each stage of chocolate history is sprinkled with different chocolatey artifacts. From ancient clay vases decorated with images of cacao seeds to modern day chocolate bar wrappers from all over the world, the exhibit illustrates just how widespread, and widely loved, chocolate is as a global treat.
But Chocolate Around the World has just as much substance as it does sugar.
Along with a pretty detailed history lesson on how the cacao seed became such a cavity causer is the story of how mass consumption has affected industry and environment. For example, when hot chocolate first started getting a sweet spin, high demand for sugar had a large impact on slave trade from Africa to North America and Europe.
In present day, the chocolate industry still experiences human rights and workers rights issues, and is seeing an increase in the demand for Fair Trade sweets. The exhibit also explores how the high demand for chocolate goods has negatively impacted the rainforest and its inhabitants — flora and fauna.
Of course, Chocolate Around the World ends on a sweet note. There is a place to rest on chocolate-shaped stools while watching “chocoholic confessions” and a kiosk allowing visitors to log their own chocolate stories and memories.
The last leg of the exhibit also features demonstrations on selected dates by local artists and pastry chefs, including artist Ian Sherwin, Rhonda Morkes of Morkes Chocolates and Executive Pastry Chef Fabrice Bouet of the Palmer House Hilton.
Although Chocolate Around the World is a traveling exhibit, it looks like it could be part of the Field’s permanent collection. Each stage of the exhibit is well decorated and has its own interactive pieces that are fun no matter your age.