Two new exhibitions opened in mid-May on the museum’s sixth floor, Modern Meals: Remaking American Foods from Farm to Kitchen and Women in Motion: Fitness, Sport, and the Female Figure. Both exhibitions, on view through August 18, were guest-curated by FIU professors and both encourage us to consider familiar subjects in new and often surprising ways.
Women in Motion
In this exhibition, “You’ll see the multiple ways in which women’s bodies are displayed and used—some are very subtle and some are obvious,” explains guest co-curator Dionne Stephens, assistant professor of psychology at FIU. She worked with Laurie Shrage, professor of philosophy and women’s studies, to explore representations of women engaged in athletic activities in materials such as posters, magazines, prints, books, video, and ceramics from the United States and Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. The images were generated by a range of sources, including governments, fitness advocates, advertisers, and artists.
These representations—from across cultures and media—have many similarities, chief among them being “certain idealized modes of the female body,” Stephens says, which “is ‘supposed to be’ highly feminine.” Even when women are engaged in a physically demanding activity such as sports, many of the images portray women “not as muscular, fast, and competitive, but rather as graceful, curvaceous, and delicate,” adds Shrage. “We found some exceptions to these representational techniques in the posters and images from fascist regimes…Our conjecture is that, because women in these posters represent the ‘master race’…we see strong, fast, and muscular women… ready to serve their countries.”
The curators both feel that many of the issues raised by the exhibition remain extremely relevant today. “Many societies view women as weaker and more fragile than men,” explains Shrage. “The idea of women as ‘the weaker sex’ can be pernicious, especially when stereotypes such as this are used to justify discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere.” She adds that the materials on view “reflect ideas about race, gender, class, nationality, and physical ability, which we should examine and question.”
Where does our food come from? Is it local? Is it organic? Is it better—for us and/or the planet—to purchase eggs produced by a small concern nearby rather than mass produced and sold in a supermarket chain? And if so, why? These are concerns that many of us have become more aware of in recent years, notes April Merleaux, assistant professor in the department of history at FIU and guest curator of Modern Meals.
Despite the growing awareness, Merleaux wonders if people know the history behind our food system. “An industrial ideal has shaped American’s eating habits for much longer than many people realize—at least since the Civil War,” she says. “The government also had a major influence on our eating habits, and this has played out especially in wartime. During wars the government has made new demands on how its citizens eat, and it has also commanded vast resources to supply the war effort.”
The exhibition focuses on four themes and explores them through more than three dozen items from the collection, ranging from advertisements, prints, and posters to objects like cookware, tableware, and toasters.
“Food industries” traces the development of the modern American food industry as mechanization was introduced to farming and production scale increased. “Food and the modern home” considers both the increase in processed and packaged foods and how the kitchen became the most technologically advanced room in most homes due to the development of appliances for food storage and preparation. The effects of modern wars on food production and consumption are explored in “Food is a weapon.” And for anyone who ever wondered how we got orange juice from oranges, “Orange juice, from cans to cartons” traces the development of both the product and consumer demand for it.
The development of both exhibitions was made possible with financial support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.