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The Way to a Visitor’s Heart: Using Food to Motivate

Birthday cakes with candles for wishes. A freshly baked loaf of bread to welcome a new neighbor. Thanksgiving feasts and celebratory spreads for bar mitzvahs, christenings, graduations, and weddings. Food is more than nutrition in most cultures, and it is another tool teachers use to motivate and educate their students. A classroom mainstay, food may be simply a candy treat for work well done or an international feast to culminate the study of a particular geographical region. Visitors to many museums, zoos, historic sites, and garden centers are also finding food a part of their educational programming.


Art museums deal predominately with the visual, but the use of food allows docents to introduce other sensory stimulation to their tours. Find a still life painting in the collection that includes familiar foods such as oranges and apples. On a nearby table, reproduce the still life with real objects, including the food, to help visitors smell (and, perhaps, taste) such art as they explore the aesthetic challenges the artist faced in painting still life.

Another food that has an important role to play in art history is, of course, the egg. Egg tempera was the medium of choice of medieval panel painting. It produced a quick-drying coat of intense color and jewel-like brightness perfect for the religious panels of Gothic painting. Nevertheless, the colors of egg tempera cannot be easily blended to achieve three-dimensional effects, and the quick-drying nature of the medium also presented challenges to the artist. If your collection includes such panel paintings, let students experiment with mixing diluted egg yolk and pigment to produce tempera paint before viewing those paintings in your collection whose artists used this technique. It’s a lot easier to understand the limitations of tempera when you’ve actually tried to use it.


Historic houses, sites, and history museums have long appreciated and interpreted the importance of food in the development of a particular community or culture. Year-round food production and preservation is an integral part of the interpretation of life at many historic farms, plantations, and large-scale sites such as Colonial Williamsburg. Visitors watch, or sometimes participate, in such activities as planting and cultivating, hearth cooking, and livestock care.

At the 1850 Homeplace at Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky, as well as other such reproduced historic farms, costumed interpreters cook and eat a daily meal under the scrutiny of students and other visitors. Special events, such as weddings, often allow visitors to become part of the action and to taste historically-accurate foods prepared for the celebration. Sites that interpret food history may be forced to make some compromises in historical accuracy in light of modern health and aesthetic concerns. Interpreting Food History, Technical Leaflet #197, can be ordered from the American Association of State and Local History ($5; 615-255-2971) and provides important suggestions and considerations for historic sites that include food as part of their historic interpretation.

On a smaller scale, history museums can also make food a part of their interpretation. For example, corn shelling and cooking with corn products has a place in many history museums as this grain was basic to both indigenous people and later groups. The preparation of sourdough starter and sourdough bread, too, is a relatively simple activity appropriate to many museums that deal with the westward movement in the United States. Sourdough, of course, also provides a good science museum activity for studies of fungi.

Food has made its way into museum publications as some natural history museum education departments extend an exhibit’s research into gallery guides, pamphlets, or full-sized books. The ethnobotany of indigenous people is such a project, a collaborative publication by the Royal British Columbia Museum and the University of British Columbia of Nancy Turner’s Plants of Coastal First People and its 1996 companion volume Food Plants of Interior First People.


The Internet provides an outreach for many museums, and food is evident here, too. The Science Museum of Minnesota’s Web Page ( includes “The Thinking Fountain,” described as “… a living card file of ideas and activities.” The Thinking Fountain cards each highlight a resource with information and activities and then refer the browser to three other links with additional information and activities. The card for Fondant, for example, explains that this is the sugar substance found in the center of some candy bars and provides a step-by-step pictorial recipe. After some “That Makes Me Think” questions, other links are offered. One Fondant link for “Another Way of Looking At It” leads, in turn, to “Cross Sections,” which leads to “Beneath a Big Bridge” among others.

At each step of the way, in cards about Bread, Chocolate, Eggs, and other foods, young scientists are encouraged to experiment at home or in school and send their ideas and/or drawings to The Thinking Fountain for inclusion in the museum’s collections.

“Feeding time” is a tradition at many zoos, but some institutions carry their food/visitor connection even further. Visitors examine beaks and claws and match them with possible food sources at outreach “tables” throughout the park. “Do Not Feed the Animals” signs are replaced with explanations about diet and nutrition that make the visitor a partner in the animals’ health. Children may be given sample seeds and encouraged to discover how an animal in the wild accesses the food inside. Older classes work with math problems that determine nutritional needs and daily consumption by various animals. The connection between human and animal nutrition becomes an interesting science lesson.

There are difficulties present when working with food in museum settings, and museum educators must be aware of the dangers of allergies, fire, knives, and contamination, as well as Health Department requirements and the expense and logistic challenges when food becomes part of an institution’s interpretation. However, when care is taken, food becomes a natural and powerful component of good teaching programs.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “The Way to a Visitor’s Heart: Using Food to Motivate,” The Docent Educator 7.1 (Autumn 1997): 16-17.

Yeast Leavened Bread

Our ancestors made yeast from hops, potatoes, malt, even peach leaves ╤ anything that could be fermented and mixed with flour Once made, a sourdough starter had to be “fed” and maintained as it was a time-consuming nuisance to make another The value of sourdough starter on the western frontier is illustrated by the “tall tale” of the miner whose mule fell over a cliff. His friend tried to prevent him from climbing down after the mule, but he explained, “I know my mule is dead, but my starter’s in the saddlebags!”

Sourdough Starter

  • 1 package dry yeast
  • 3 cups warm water ( 1 05-1 15 degrees, divided)
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • Starter Food

Dissolve yeast in 1/2 cup warm water, stirring well; let stand 5 minutes or until bubbly.

Combine remaining water, flour, and sugar in a medium-size, nonmetal bowl; mix well. Add dissolved yeast, and stir well. Cover loosely with cheesecloth, and let stand in a warm place (80-85 degrees) for 72 hours, stirring 2 to 3 times daily. Place fermented mixture in refrigerator, and stir daily; use within 1 1 days.

To use, let Sourdough Starter stand at room temperature at least 1 hour Stir well, and measure amount of starter needed for recipe. Replenish remaining starter with Starter Food and return to refrigerator; use within 2 to 1 1 days, stirring daily. Repeat procedure for using and replenishing Sourdough Starter Yield: about 2 cups.

Starter Food

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1 /2 cups water

Stir all ingredients into remaining Sourdough Starter, and refrigerate.

From the Southern Heritage Breads Cookbook


Fondant is the sugar substance that forms the core of many candy bars.

  • 1 58 ml soft butter
  • 1 58 ml light corn syrup
  • 2.5 ml salt
  • 907 g powdered sugar
  • 5 ml extract, any flavor

Mix the butter, corn syrup, and salt. Slowly add powdered sugar, stirring to mix completely after each addition. Add extract and mix thoroughly. Knead and shape. Now your fondant is ready to dip in chocolate!

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