Take a seat on one of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup-shaped cushions and instantly feel like a kid in a candy shop while inside the Museum of Science’s Chocolate: The Exhibition. This oversized box of chocolates serves as the main attraction of the Cambridge-located exhibit, and allures people of all ages, whether for the photo opportunity, momentary joy of bouncing on a delicious-looking cushion, or simply a place to rest at the end of a walk down chocolate’s long history.
The first room of the exhibit brings the individual back to where it all started: cacao beans in a rainforest. The green, leaf-covered walls arch to meet at the center of the ceiling, where a life-sized model of a cacao tree lays beneath.
Exhibit curator Grace Ignarri identifies this as one of her favorite parts of the exhibit. Throughout the almost nine-month process of re-staging the Chicago-based exhibit into its new space in Boston, Ignarri was surprised to learn new, random facts about the tree itself, such as how a specific, tiny fly called a midge is the only bug able to pollinate the beloved plant.
As the dark green panels transition to golden-orange pyramids, the visitors follow the cacao bean into to Mesopotamia. In this part of the exhibit, visitors can play with beans as currency for groceries, learn how cacao was included in religious rituals and offerings, and even learn ancient symbols used to designate specific vessels for the (at the time, spicy) treat. Each room of the exhibit specializes in a different time period and is clearly decorated accordingly, carrying each individual through different historical eras of chocolate with the colors of the walls and the molding of the frames used.
If a visitor steps through the arched walkway labeled “Chocolate Meets Sugar,” they enter into an area more familiar to the modern understanding of chocolate. First comes an European-themed room where visitors learn about the unique chocolate-related customs of the time, and be immersed in information about the slave labor that went into the rise of the cacao bean. The next rooms surround visitors with information about the time and labor put into the process of creating chocolate, along with how the modern world consumes and portrays the treat.
The curators of the Chocolate Exhibit hit the mark by pulling people in with a delicious name, and enthralling them with interactive activities and photo opportunities that teach visitors something new about the food they already know. This learning process, Ignarri said, is a goal she personally had for the impact of the exhibit. The focus on sustainability and the survival of the plant throughout the nature-themed rooms is something she values as a key point of the visitor’s experience. Tying this environmental perspective into a commonplace treat could open Bostonians’ eyes to the many environmental impacts of chocolate on daily life that are often ignored, turning the exhibit into something not only fun, but impactful.
The museum also includes technology throughout the different historical time periods as a teaching tool. Touchscreens are available to quiz visitors on chocolate facts, visual screens are used to display videos and periodically-timed text, and even an electronic map is used to mark the passage of cacao after its first European discovery. The surprising amount of educational opportunities, alongside the photo opportunities, makes for a well-rounded exhibit experience.
Although this exhibit may at first seem out of place in the Museum of Science, it couldn’t fit in more perfectly. The museum has been involved in a food initiative for a few years now, so when the curators had the opportunity to bring over the chocolate exhibit from the Chicago Field Museum—with whom they have worked with frequently in the past—it was a painless decision.
And for the science lovers who still want to play around with some chemicals, the Boston exhibit has added an interactive lesson for that as well. The “Tongue Testing” table contains a variety of chemicals for anyone to taste themselves, Phenylthiocarbamide and theobromine are just two on the menu. Passersby can rank the intensity of taste on their questionnaire when testing out these ingredients, as well as categorize them as sweet or bitter, as part of a mini research study within the exhibit to track the rating trends for each of the five chemicals. One toddler, however, decided to go with “disgusting” as her description of theobromine. She obviously minded the bitterness of the substance, but her periodic giggles and playful back-and-forth with the museum worker told the rest of the passersby that she found the interactive display worthwhile.
The exhibit—along with its unique interactive experiences—will remain in Boston until May 7, although its rising popularity shows that the museum-lovers of Boston may want to keep it around for longer. While it isn’t the first exhibit included in the Museum of Science’s food initiative, the unique excitement around Chocolate: The Exhibition in particular is undeniable. Luckily, most people would never dare try to ignore their love for chocolate.
Featured Image by Mary Kate DiNorica