Chocolate and circuses are the legacy of the retired director of the Minnesota Historical Society, Nina Archabal. It is at best, a mixed legacy, one that present and future generations may regret. Past generations, the ones who founded the Minnesota Historical Society would regret it too, because it is so different from the purposes they expressed in founding the institution.
Earlier this year in the summer I did my best to try to convince people that the Minnesota Historical Society was capable of dealing with serious historical topics, that it was changing because its director of many years was retiring, and that the agency could handle a tragic subject like the indelible mark left on the state by the events of 1862. A few days later I received in the mail the announcement of the new “blockbuster” exhibit, on the subject of chocolate. I am a big fan of chocolate, but what bothers me about the exhibit is how little it has to do with the important mission of the Historical Society to preserve and interpret the history of this place, of Minnesota. There may be “chocolate stories” to tell about Minnesota, but this eight-year-old exhibit from the Field Museum in Chicago does not tell them.
The Minnesota Historical Society is not a history organization that happens to be located in Minnesota, it is an organization founded and dedicated to tell the history of Minnesota. The Minnesota Historical Society is not the equivalent of the Minnesota Orchestra, an orchestra that just happens to be located in Minnesota but does not focus on Minnesota music. For years Nina Archabal led the Minnesota Historical Society to embrace the mission that history was not as boring as it seemed–at least to people who were bored by history, or to people who did not consider the history of Minnesota to be important enough to bother about. For Nina Archabal history was entertainment, and the subject of the entertainment did not matter much as long as it was vaguely related to history and drew some crowds. What was missing was a sense of the importance of the history of this place and the social role that preserving and interpreting Minnesota’s history could serve in Minnesota. This became a particular problem at times when there were budget deficits.
There is nothing wrong with using the tools of entertainment to draw people into rich Minnesota stories. But when entertainment is used for its own sake or to tell Minnesotans about the Mayans and their chocolate, it does nothing more than convince people that rich stories can be found anywhere but in Minnesota. If the Minnesota Historical Society was merely an institution geared to provide entertainment why would it matter if its budget were cut in times economic woes, when entertainment could be dispensed with for awhile? The answer is that the historical society can have a much larger and much more important role to play in Minnesota, as the keeper of historical records, the site of Minnesota’s state-mandated historical library, the interpreter of and educator about Minnesota’s rich history as a state. What does chocolate do to further that role? The essential social role of the Minnesota Historical Society is one that the founders of the institution had in mind when they created it in 1849, before Minnesota was a state. It is a role that that the many talented and dedicated members of the staff of the historical society continue to carry out to the best of their ability, but it is that role that Nina Archabal shortchanged and frequently disrespected. I hope that the new director of the society, to be selected soon, will have a different point of view.
Here’s a more detailed description of the chocolate exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Society, from the institution’s own website. Oddly enough the page where this appears is numbered “1862” but it is very distant from any attempt to grapple with Minnesota’s own complex history:
Chocolate is a $16 billion-dollar-a-year industry in the United States with Americans eating about 12 pounds per person annually, according to the National Confectioners Association. But chocolate is much more than a sweet treat associated with luxury and romance. Its story begins in the rainforest of Central and South America where the ancient Maya harvested the precious cacao seed to use as money and made a drink out of the grounds. Explore the relationship between human culture and this rainforest treasure in “Chocolate,” at the Minnesota History Center from Oct. 2, 2010, to Jan. 2, 2011.
The exhibit introduces visitors to the plant, products, history and culture of chocolate. Learn about the cacao tree and its rainforest environment; chocolate in the Maya and Aztec cultures; how chocolate came to Europe, its history there, and how technology changed it from a luxury to a mass-produced snack food; and how chocolate is grown, processed, advertised, consumed, and traded on the world market today.
Artifacts include pre-Columbian ceramics and ritual objects; European silver and porcelain chocolate services; nineteenth- and twentieth-century cocoa tins, advertising and packaging; antique and contemporary candy molds; and botanical specimens and agricultural tools.
Originated by The Field Museum in Chicago, this blockbuster exhibit has been seen by more than 1.6 million people in museums across the United States.
“Chocolate” is a bilingual exhibit; all text is in Spanish and English.