The American Museum of Natural History's "Chocolate" show is full of empty calories.
The "Chocolate" exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History (on view until Sept. 4) is—no surprise—a trifle. It melts in your mouth, not in your brain. Charmingly undemanding (if pricey at $17 a pop), it's the disposable summer blockbuster of museum exhibits, an institutional moneymaker aimed at the sweet-toothed toddler in us all.
And here I must admit that I am that toddler. After following the floor stickers ("This way to Chocolate!") to a Wonka-esque gold-scripted arch, I found myself winding through a maze of history lite—just enough info to get the idea, nothing too taxing—dutifully taking notes but with one thought pulsing inside my tiny lizard brain: At the end of this exhibit, there is a chocolate cafe. A chocolate cafe. A chocolate cafe. Around the time Spain was spreading the sweet stuff from the Mayans to Europe, I gave in and cheated.
I scuttled through the exhibit, past the antique candy wrappers, and purchased a big bar of organic dark chocolate. Then I snuck back to the beginning. Now, strictly speaking, this is illegal—and damn it, I support following the rules. Nobody wants tourists smearing Mars bars on the museum's pristine glass cases. But as a critic, I felt it was imperative that I work with all my senses.
Loaded up on the sweet stuff, I discovered that the exhibit does indeed cover the basics. You've got your wrinkly cocoa pods, your Mayan pottery, your industrial history of the cocoa trade (with a nice emphasis on social justice). You've got your alarming pellet of 1,500-year-old chocolate. Better yet, you've got your photo of an immense Easter bunny, circa 1890. Five feet tall, the rabbit possesses the chalky dignity of an Egyptian sarcophagus, and it stands, golemlike, beside it is its creator, Robert L. Strohecker. The label reveals that Strohecker is "the 'father' of the chocolate Easter bunny"—pretty much the best epithet one could hope for in this life.
Some of the exhibit's historical sections were a little on the vague side. "Nearly 100 years passed before other European countries caught the chocolate craze," read one display's label. "Were the Spanish trying to keep chocolate to themselves? And how did news of chocolate spread? We're not sure." But there's just enough background to keep an intellectual candy-lover occupied. Among stuff I learned without focusing too intently: The ancient Mayans offered the god Quetzalcoatl ritual chocolate that was "a deep blood-red color." By 1930, there were 40,000 different kinds of chocolate bars. Chocolate contains the love-chemical phenylethylamine. (Though the placard rather primly insisted that there is "no conclusive evidence it stimulates the libido.") And don't feed your dog chocolate—it can be lethal, and it's a waste of good chocolate.
At a few junctures, the facts-to-dramatics ratio dipped too low for even phenylethylamine-addled me. In one alcove, visitors find a movie screen displaying the swirly legend "Chocolate meets sugar in Spain." This silent-movie caption is immediately followed by a video illustration: a gigantic brown tongue of melted chocolate pours down from the top of the screen, followed by a spinning drift of sugar. Then the solemn words appear again: "Chocolate meets sugar in Spain." That is the full extent of the display.
More successful is the panoply of defunct candy wrappers, each beaming promises of delight. "Keep the party perkin'! Lady, take a bow! Serve 'em nuggets, serve 'em chips! Wonderful and … wow!" reads one. Taken together, the wrappers form a history of cultural trends, from Brach's Swingtime (named after the dance craze) to the Mr. Big Shaq Snaq (named after the hoops player). There's also a telephone-shaped chocolate mold, a hand-carved coffin in the shape of a cocoa pod, and a vending machine that once dispensed Hershey bars for a penny each. There isn't much sociological depth here—I found myself thinking about oddball subjects the curators could have covered, like the way chocolate imagery has been used to refer to black skin or the whole Cathy cartoon notion that women have some special biological need for chocolate, but some of these tchotchkes are fun to look at.
Still, listening to my fellow exhibit-goers was often more entertaining than gazing at yet another cocoa pod. After all, this is a subject on which everyone is an expert. "I want to live in a chocolate house!" blurted out one thirtysomething fellow. A couple to my left began earnestly debating the difference between hot cocoa and hot chocolate. And a bescarved French matron, gazing up at an enormous screen displaying a minidocumentary about the modern manufacturing process, began reminiscing in great detail about the famous I Love Lucy chocolate-making scene. If the chocolate exhibit serves one major purpose, it's clearly a Proustian trigger for everyone's kid-candy memories.
And perhaps all museum exhibits are really chocolate exhibits at heart—coating the crunchy facts with a bit of sweetness and a shiny wrapper. This one just happens to have a much thicker coating than most. Slipping a last square of bittersweet into my mouth, I sat down to watch the final display. The seats were a hilarious array of pillowy hassocks, each one shaped like an enormous bonbon, complete with frilled paper container. On TV screens—also lodged in a chocolate-box layout—my fellow chocolateers and I watched a lightweight set of video reminiscences, from a middle-aged man singing the praises of "blender chocolate" to a Mexican man crooning an ode to hot cocoa. Like the rest of the exhibit, it was sweet and dismissible, but it was also impossible to dislike.
Emily Nussbaum lives in New York; she writes for Slate, the New York Times, and Nerve.
Photograph of box of candy by D. Finnin/American Museum of Natural History; photograph of Quetzalcoatl © 2002 The Field Museum.