Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Weighty Matters

A couple of weeks ago a colleague sent me a post from the Center for the Future of Museums blog about a new exhibit that is being planned for the Peabody. It's called "Big Food" and its about the "global obesity epidemic." She wanted me to (1) give the blog post a plug and (2) make it go "viral." This is me doing #1. For #2, I showed her that honey badger clip from YouTube and asked whether she really thought the blog post had the same potential. It's a good post, but frankly I can't see it on a teeshirt. She asked me, rather sniffily, how I would have blogged about this exhibit. And here's what I told her.

I am, not to put to fine a point on it, fat. Not hugely, break the furniture, fat, but I am carrying a few too many pounds. My doctor continually gives me grief about this, along with my cholesterol levels, blood pressure, triglyceride levels, and a bunch of other stuff. She makes me get on a scale and afterwards she plots my weight and height on a BMI chart and tells me I'm overweight, which I already know. I exercise and diet, and it doesn't do a whole lot of good. I once lost over 30lbs, then put it all back on. All of this makes me feel bad. So why would I spend my leisure time going to a museum exhibit that, frankly, sounds like a big fat downer?

This is a challenge for any museum. Consider the statistics. Around 33% of adult Americans are overweight or obese. In some communities, the figures are as high as 45-55%. These communities are often those that, traditionally, have been underserved by museums. We want them to come and visit, but are they really going to be drawn to an exhibit if it lays out, in loving detail, the medical consequences of their "lifestyle choices?" If I go to the exhibit, will skinny visitors point me out to their children as living proof of the effects of too much high fructose corn syrup? Will I become, in a very Nina Simon sort of way, part of the exhibit?

The "Obesity Epidemic" is actually a good fit for a natural history museum - it has both biological and cultural aspects and the Peabody's success in reaching out to diverse audiences means that there is the potential to make a genuine impact in the community. Partnering with the Rudd Center means that there is a good chance that the exhibit will manage to navigate the complex issues associated with obesity - unsurprisingly, effecting major changes in public health is not as easy as banning fast food and making people eat up their greens. I just wonder whether the people that we most need to talk to are the ones who will be least inclined to visit. It will be fascinating to see how the team creating the exhibition addresses this challenge.

Or maybe they could just do something on fat dinosaurs. People love dinosaurs. Even chubby ones.


  1. Welcome back. Tree on house - ouch. Hope it wasn't as bad as it looks. On this particular posting, I agree with your comments regarding the obesity exhibit. I think it is categorically different from the others that the Peabody seems to consider as in the same category of exhibit -- such as its previous exhibits on bed bugs or West Nile virus. Great chance of it going very wrong.

  2. Thanks, Tony - no, it's not as bad as it looks.

    Re. the exhibit, I actually think high-risk exhibits are a positive thing - too many museums (naming no names) shy away from anything that's controversial. So you just end up with yet another travelling dinosaur show (oops, guess I might as well have named names). The group that's creating the obesity show is about as good as you're going to get, so I'm both mildly skeptical and also excited to see what they come up with.

  3. Excellent point about the difficulties in drawing in the people who may need this exhibit the most. I would say that you solved the problem though. I don't know anybody who would turn down the chance to see chubby dinosaurs!