This Respectful Approach to Recipe Writing Can Help Museums

I read Food & Wine’s (F&W) Editor's Note: Why a Recipe Is More Than a Recipe published on the 22nd of January 2021. While it focuses on food, it shares an important framework that can be applied to developing museum programs, curation and museum collections. The F & W team calls it the 4Cs when commissioning culturally important recipes: Collaboration, Consent, Credit, and Context. The subtitle reads: And how a mistake leads to a conversation.

A bowl of mole verde, a green soup topped with sliced white onions, cilantro and white sesame seeds

A number of things come to mind when I reflect on this, and how it plays out in the museum space. Why in 2021 do issues of misrepresentation still arise? Why don’t institutions learn? Why are this issues still considered ‘contemporary’ when they have centuries of legacy? Why is the process ‘slow’, the journey to equity delayed?

Over the last few months, inspired by discussions in one of my Museum and Cultural Management classes, I began to research and document museum controversies which have existed and captured by the media since 1911 - 110 years ago! Several, similar incidents feature, occurring several times and sometimes, the same museum featured several times. From Europe to North America, the controversies are around stolen museum objects to appalling treatment, misrepresentation of cultural objects to curation from colonial perspectives. The incidents that have brought these to life have been discussed on panels, written about in media and still, change is ‘slow’. Why?

Gallery of various records of controversies in the museum space

I think fear of having difficult conversations is a huge barrier largely because frameworks within which to conduct them aren’t discussed often and they should be. Controversies, uncomfortable as they are, present opportunity for genuine change - for discussion, examination and to map courses of action. I used to be terrified of conflict till 2009 when I was introduced to Crucial Conversations - this is not an AD! It equipped me with tools to have difficult conversations, and made me capable of putting aside most of my subjectivity and approach subjects objectively.

And this is where I love the piece by Food & Wine. It outlines the 4 Cs but there are other things I observed before we get there, I call them the 5As but first, allow me share the bones of the situation which led to the development of the 4Cs framework.

“In the January issue of Food & Wine, we published a story and recipe for Mole Verde from Norma Listman and Saqib Keval, the chefs and owners of Masala y Maíz in Mexico City.”

The recipe made certain assumptions:

#1: It was okay to garnish this specific mole with hot sauce and limes. Without consultation from the recipe owners, they photographed and published it.

Lesson #1: co-creation must begin in the concept development stage and continue till project close.

Museum application: Before you develop an exhibition, map out and consult all relevant stakeholders. Engage them and include them as much as possible throughout the lifecycle of the project.

#2: According to the article, “The recipe, which Listman had already culturally translated for American cooks, is of historic and cultural significance to Central Mexico and is derived from her family's traditions.”

Quite often, there is an assumption that Western aesthetics are the right/ only lens through which things should be viewed.

The recipe had already been translated. The team should have trusted that the translation was complete, rather than assume it wasn’t. It was that assumption that led to the mix up

Lesson #2: If you suspect some information is missing as part of a production, ask. If you want to include things that aren’t listed, ask.

Museum application: Ask, ask, ask. Don’t assume that the object should be displayed in ways that are typical in the predominant culture. Asking is part of

#3: When the F & W team discovered the error, they listened! Regardless of whatever personal feelings they might have had, they put them aside, focusing on correcting the situation, rather than being right.

Lesson #3: We aren’t omni, everything. We can and will make mistakes, from trying. The fear and shame of making mistakes shouldn’t stop us from exploring new things.

Museum application: When we make mistakes, we must own up to them and accept responsibility for that failure. We must review the points of failure, take immediate corrective action and map a process for ensuring such mistakes aren’t repeated. As part of that, we should explore scenarios where the corrective framework could be applied. We should also shared #Lessonslearned to help others learn, like F & W did.

In reviewing their approach, I observed 5 things they had done which were important in making amends.

Talking about the 5 A: Acknowledge, Apologize, Appreciate, Agree, Awareness

#4. The team at F&W outlined a framework with which they would evaluate future recipes from various cultures. It is a solid next step.

“As part of sharing this discussion, we are recommitting to what we refer to as the four Cs when commissioning culturally important recipes: Collaboration, Consent, Credit, and Context.”

Lesson #4:

So, what might the 4Cs look like in practice, particularly from the discussion the F & W team had with Norma Listman and Saqib Keval, the chefs and owners of Masala y Maíz in Mexico City.

  • Collaboration: involve knowledge holders, unbiased sources and references

  • Consent: obtain permission from whom it is required

  • Credit: Find the primary sources, pay homage to the origins, support, references

  • Context: include and respect all aspects of the history and tradition. Don’t assume, ignore, imagine or falsely present.

Museums must:

  • we need to take the same care we do in handling objects with handling the stories which define and accompany them

  • In the desire to communicate simply, we must not dumb down. We harm both the culture we are projecting by adopting a reductive approach which erodes history and tradition and we harm our audience by assuming a lack of comprehension that would prevent them from understanding the larger context

  • The role of Museums and Cultural centres should be as mediators, as platform providers - fair, open, just, and not as biased space holders whose focus is on heroing certain narratives. Be bold, be courageous, be pioneers and please, don’t let us wait another hundred years experiencing the same controversies and injustices

  • Learn to have crucial conversations and learn to learn from them.

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