A unique tree in a lush tropical environment. A seed so precious it was used as money. A spicy drink and a sweet snack. A heavenly craving and a sublime pleasure. Chocolate is all this … and much more.
Explore the relationship between human culture and this rainforest treasure in Chocolate: The Exhibition, Oct. 9, 2016 through Jan. 8, 2017 at Gilcrease Museum.
Chocolate will immerse you in a sweet experience, engage all your senses, and reveal facets of chocolate you may never have thought about before. You’ll explore the plant, the products, the history, and the culture of chocolate through the lenses of botany and ecology, anthropology and economics, conservation and popular culture.
The ancient Maya of Central America knew it as a frothy, spicy drink, made from the seeds of the cacao tree and used in royal and religious ceremonies. But, because cacao grows only in the rainforest, it was coveted by other cultures — in particular, the Aztec. It soon became a valuable article of trade; the seeds served as a form of money, and the drink became a luxury for the elite, served in lavishly decorated vessels. When the first Europeans reached the Aztec capital, instead of gold they found treasure troves of cacao seeds.
The exhibition explores the commodification of chocolate by Europeans, and the use of slave labor on colonial plantations to meet the insatiable European demand for chocolate and its new soul mate, sugar.
Another fascinating part of the exhibition concerns the cacao tree itself (Theobroma cacao), its lowland rainforest ecology and how it’s grown today. A beautiful tree with delicate flowers, cacao grows only within 20° latitude (about 1,380 miles) of the equator. It’s relatively small, no more than 30 or 40 feet high, and grows naturally in the rainforest understory, in the shade of larger, canopy trees.
Sustainable cacao-growing, environmental protections, and supporting the genetic diversity of wild cacao are increasingly important topics today, for economic as well as botanical reasons. Thanks to technological advances and mass production — not to mention enormous amounts of advertising — chocolate has become a part of the global market economy. Cacao seeds are traded on the commodities market (under the name “cocoa”), right along with pork bellies and soy. A futures stock ticker display in the exhibition brings this point home with a live display of current cocoa prices on the world market.
Even so, chocolate retains vestiges of its ceremonial history. Mexicans today use it as an offering on the Day of the Dead, in the form of beans or prepared as mole. Foil-wrapped chocolate coins are given to children as “Chanukah gelt.” And in the United States, of course, chocolate has a place in nearly every holiday celebration: heart-shaped boxes of chocolate for Valentine’s Day, chocolate bunnies for Easter, wrapped candies for trick-or-treaters at Halloween, and cups of hot cocoa to warm Christmas carolers.
Chocolate has its deepest cultural roots in places where it’s indigenous, like Mexico, and where it’s been turned into a commodity, like Europe and the U. S.
The value of chocolate can be measured in sales – $13 billion a year in the U.S. – or in symbols. In this country, for example, chocolate is closely linked not only with love but with patriotism: Chocolate has been issued to U.S. soldiers since World War I, and it has even accompanied astronauts into space.
These popular uses of chocolate, along with a fascinating array of chocolate advertising and packaging and a look at myths about chocolate, are all part of the Chocolate exhibition.
Chocolate and its national tour were developed by The Field Museum in Chicago. This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.
Title sponsor of the Gilcrease Museum 2016 exhibition season is the Sherman E. Smith Family Charitable Foundation. Generous support is also provided by: Mervin Bovaird Foundation, C.W. Titus Foundation and M.V. Mayo Charitable Foundation.
Glacier Confection is Gilcrease Museum’s local partner for Chocolate: The Exhibition.
Several programs have been planned to augment the exhibition including opening weekend lectures, a chocolate-making demonstration, a special chocolate-themed dinner with wine pairings and an after-hours program in October. For the full list of events, visit www.gilcrease.org/chocolate.