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‘Chocolate: The Exhibition’ shares global history of beloved treat

The New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science near Old Town explores the local connections and the global history of chocolate in “Chocolate: The Exhibition,” which opened to the public June 17, 2022 and is set to close March 12, 2023.

The exhibit was originally developed by the Field Museum in Chicago. It tracks the history of chocolate through a multisensory experience. It leads viewers from the bitter cacao seed grown in the rainforest to the sweet spot it commands in our global marketplace and personal diets. As part of the exhibit, the Museum of Natural History and Science also hosts family days and lectures that investigate the local connection to the story of chocolate.

Deb Novak, the museum’s director of education, is interested in presenting exhibits that appeal to New Mexicans. Curating additional activities for community engagement for this exhibit has stretched her creativity. She hoped to create an experience beneficial to viewers who spend anywhere between 15 minutes or two hours walking through it. In the 10 years that she has worked at the museum, there hasn’t been another exhibit solely focused on food, according to Novak.

“The exhibit is predominantly visual… (it highlights) the luxurious look of chocolate,” Novak said.

In the entryway, under a large archway, large cacao seeds hang from a life-size cacao tree. The tree is surrounded by information about the habitats and animals that support the growth of cacao seeds. As you move through the exhibit, the use of the seed shifts from a frothy drink Mayan priests presented as offerings to the gods to a currency in the Aztec Empire. In certain areas of the exhibit, visitors can “shop” with the seeds, buying ingredients common in local cuisine with the seeds.

“Kids can find out how many cacao beans it takes to buy tamales,” Novak said. “We wanted to make sure people knew that there was a New Mexico connection.”

A local connection is made not only through food, but through the lecture nights that describe how the trade routes established chocolate as a commodity in Chaco Canyon. Chaco Canyon, located in northern New Mexico, was a main center of culture and trade for the Puebloans, according to the National Parks Service.

The exhibit also includes information on the role colonialism has played in our modern understanding of chocolate as a sweet treat, made of cacao heated and mixed with sugar.

“(Sugar) was a European addition to the chocolate trajectory,” Novak said.

The exhibit explained the forced labor and mass death of native peoples that contributed to the creation of modern chocolate, reminding visitors that European kitchens and the food we eat today are directly connected to a legacy of colonialism.

Novak is always looking for new exhibits and events to engage the community. Later in the month, the museum is displaying Nikon’s Small World, which showcases a collection of images captured through light microscopes, called photomicrography, according to their website.

“It is a small but mighty exhibit,” Novak said.

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The final family day for “Chocolate: The Exhibition” will be held on Saturday, March 11. Attendees will be able to participate in interactive activities that explore the biology, chemistry and history of chocolate before the exhibit closes the following day.

Addison Key is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at culture@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @addisonkey11


Addison Key

Addison Key is a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo and served as the Summer 2023 culture editor. She can be reached on Twitter @addisonkey11. 

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