A Feast For Young Tastes At New Children's Museum
It’s tough to get kids to eat what is on their plate. Most parents can recount the high-level negotiations taking place around the dinner table.
The New Children’s Museum (NCM) wants to change that. A tall order, to be sure. The museum's new exhibit is called "Feast: The Art of Playing With Your Food." It includes 13 food-related art installations that combine play and education.
Chickens are one of the star attractions in "Feast." On a recent Monday, museum guide Charles Thunyakij held a rust-colored chicken named Jimbo under his arm like a football, an unusual sight in a contemporary art museum.
He tells the growing audience of kids and parents pressed eagerly around a pen in the museum lobby: "You’re going to be meeting our chickens today. Does anyone know why we have chickens here at the museum?" Silence. Can you blame them? As I noted, it's unusual.
Jimbo is the straight hen to hammy Barbra, a black and white speckled chicken who gets all the attention by jumping pretty high (for a chicken) every time swiss chard is dangled above her.
The kids feed seeds to the chickens and pet them. Eight-year-old Rachel Silverstein is visiting from Connecticut. She's bravely put her seed bearing hand forth for Jimbo to peck. "Well, the chickens are soft and when you feed them they’re ticklish," said Silverstein. She paused and added: "I think they enjoyed it, but I’m not positive."
The chickens – there are five of them - live in a coop just outside the museum. They are part of an artwork by New York-based artist Tattfoo Tan whose socially engaged style of art making hopes to educate people on how to raise an urban flock. The chickens are part of a larger project dubbed "S.O.S." which stands for Sustainable. Organic. Stewardship. Through S.O.S., Tan holds gardening and composting demonstrations.
Tan calls the chicken piece "5PM West.” Five, for the number of chickens. "And In this case, 'PM' stands for 'Poop Machine'" explained Tomoko Kuta, co-curator of "Feast." "Because that’s essentially what chickens do. They eat, they poop, and they lay eggs."
I'd wager a dozen freshly laid eggs that some of these kids will ask their parent if they can have a chicken of their own.
If toddlers are discouraged from playing with their food at the table, it's a different story at NCM. Of course, it's a more palatable proposition if the food in question is made of felt, plastic or clay. "Kids may not have eaten a tomato, but if they see it on a giant scale and play with it, then once they’re home they might say, 'Ok,I played with the tomato at the museum. Maybe I’ll try a slice now and see what it tastes like,'" said Kuta. The idea is that play will breed familiarity and eventually, healthy eating habits.
In a piece called "Orange we..." artist Nina Waisman has built an abstract orange grove that works as a playground. Climbing ropes hang from the ceiling, standing in as trees. Large plastic oranges are placed at different levels on the ropes. Kids can perch on them or swing and hang upside down. All of their movements activate sounds in the grove. The kids "become a co-composer with me on this sound in the orange grove," said Waisman by phone from Los Angeles. "By going to one rope or another you pick which sounds you hear and then by the way you move you can alter the quality of that sound by varying degrees."
There are sounds of nature: birds, crickets, woodpeckers. Other sounds are related to oranges. There’s the slurping sounds of eating an orange, the pouring of orange juice, and the sounds of oranges being picked. Sections of the grove elicit stories and myths of oranges in other cultures. For example, climbing could activate a story about divers in Ceylon who cover themselves with orange peel oil to ward off poisonous snakes in the water. Waisman said she loves the idea of taking an object and letting it lead her across history and cultures.
Waisman also interviewed orange pickers for her installation. In these sounds, workers describe carrying a 70lb bag of oranges from tree to tree as they work.
Waisman often uses sound in her artwork. She says it’s an effective way to generate empathy in listeners. The idea is based on what happens in our brains when we hear familiar sounds. "If you hear someone doing something that sounds familiar to you, there’s this mirror neuron system in your brain that will cause the neurons to fire exactly as if you were doing that same thing and it will prime your muscles to effectively do that gesture," explained Waismen. "You become an orange picker under your own radar, unconscious, but it’s an automatic empathy with another body."
In a another area of the museum is percussionist Ross Karre’s (of UCSD percussion ensemble "Red Fish Blue Fish") installation "Sound Kitchen." A little girl is banging on a drum set made out of kitchen pots and pans. "Sound Kitchen" is set up like a little recording studio. Kids can record themselves and send the file to their home computers.
All of the pieces in "Feast" are meant to be fun. Our food obsessed culture has – until now – been the domain of adults. But an exhibit like "Feast" just might turn your five year old into a foodie.