With its identity firmly staked as the world’s leading museum of art and design, the V&A isn’t perhaps the most obvious place to head for an exhibition about the food system and its impact so I was curious to see what their unique take on this topic would be. The self-declared focus of this exhibition is how creative interventions might help transform the way we eat. The exhibition was structured in four sections: composting, farming, eating and trading and the introduction neatly pointed up the paradox about how food can form connections between societies and individuals but, at least in the west, consumers are increasingly detached from the food system.
So, what is there to see? Well, there was plenty to delight in from exhibits explaining the ingenious transformation of corn waste into a new veneer material to how to make terracotta from cow dung. The photo above shows how Grocycle have designed a system which takes the used coffee grounds from the V&A’s café and uses these to grow oyster mushrooms which then return to the café as ingredients.
Another highlight was Alice V. Robinson’s installation. She charted a journey of production in which she aimed to use the whole of one slaughtered cow. She said, ‘by working with one bullock, I aim to acknowledge the life behind the products we are so often disconnected from.’ This definitely raised thoughtful questions about industries, other than meat production, which depend on livestock.
The farming section spanned a range of lively ideas from porcelain made out of the bones of free-range and industrially farmed chickens to showcasing zines, including ‘Farming While Black’ and ‘The Land’. Fictional CVs of farmers to draw out their often unacknowledged range of skills and the foraging fruit maps of areas of London were also thought provoking.
Loci, a food lab set up towards the end of the exhibition, offered visitors the chance to design a new food future, based on their top priorities for the way we eat. Over 31,000 visitors had declared their most important values to be ‘deliciousness’, ‘nutritiousness’ and ‘zero waste’, while ‘profitability’ came last.
The shiny metal bar was eye catching and it was a thrill to have a snack specially prepared for you in line with the preferences you’d tapped into an ipad. I definitely enjoyed my acclimatised cracker with wild mushroom spread, fried myco-protein from the Marlow soil and crisped Essex barley and Somerset spelt.
This was a thoughtful and eye-catching high-end production, crammed full of beautiful objects, with a particular mention going to the wallpaper which had been designed especially for the exhibition. However, in some places it felt like there was some over-reliance on tech solutions to revolutionise the food system whereas one of the most moving and helpful exhibits was the fruit maps of different areas of London.
Of course the V&A’s remit is not to fill the exhibition with science, but there were relatively few mentions of the environmental impact of food, although the role of the food systems in causing climate change was acknowledged both at the start and at the beginning. There were some very provocative art pieces, like the banana passport to illustrate its journey and uncover the impact of food miles, but it would be possible to leave this exhibition with no real sense of how damaging eating meat is for the environment. That said, it was uplifting to visit an exhibition about modern food systems, which made it possible to engage with artistic and technological solutions and to hope - maybe this is what we need right now…