Baking has helped many people through lockdown, shortages of flour notwithstanding. Recipe downloads on the National Trust website rose nearly a thousand-fold from last year in the first four weeks of lockdown, with the favourite (cheese scones) up by 3,000%.
Food connects people at the best of times, and museums and galleries have responded quickly to the surge in food-related activities while they have been closed. They have kept audiences engaged and entertained with virtual tea parties, recipe sharing and food art, and have used artefacts to inspire activities from the nostalgic to the novel.
The Horniman Museum and Gardens in London held a virtual Great Walrus Tea Party, with a competition for the most creative walrus-themed cakes and biscuits, and downloadable fundraising activities centred on its star natural history specimen, a stuffed walrus. Imperial War Museums (IWM) selected recipes from a wartime recipe book, Victory in the Kitchen, and created an event, Family Mission, to provide audiences of all ages with ways to enjoy IWM’s collections and stories online.
“We wanted to create content that could be both entertaining and focus on subjects in the national curriculum,” says Fiona Darling, the senior producer of public engagement and learning at IWM. “We also wanted to ensure it was relatable, so food and cooking seemed like a universal theme. It gave families the chance to get creative in the kitchen while learning about wartime history.”
Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust in Kent also tapped into the hankering for nostalgic recipes by showcasing unseen collections material including photographs, menu cards and recipe books on its website. As the first heritage organisation to sign the Time to Change employer pledge, which outlines a commitment to changing the way we think and act about mental health in the workplace, it used Mental Health Awareness week in May to support communities as well as its staff who were working from home or furloughed.
“Mental health awareness is incredibly important and we could not let the week pass by without taking some steps,” says Vikkie Mulford, the digital engagement officer at Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust. Ex-servicemen from HMS Cavalier shared stories of eating such dishes as “spithead pheasant”, “train smash” and “yellow peril”.
“We were inspired by a research enquiry from a serving Royal Navy chef,” says Mulford. “The trust has also reproduced original Royal Navy recipes for bread and butter pudding and “patriotic pudding” for people to make at home. The engagement has led us to consider developing more food-related content using our collections.”
During school holidays, the Firstsite gallery at Colchester usually turns its restaurant into a canteen to provide free meals for local families; under lockdown it turned it into a food parcel distribution centre run by Community 360° for vulnerable families.
Birmingham Museums Trust turned its gift shop at Sarehole Mill into a community store selling essentials such as flour, tinned goods and pasta.
“The decision to launch the community shop, “bake and take” service and recipe boxes hasn’t just been about money,” says Alex Nicholson-Evans, the commercial director at Birmingham Museums Trust. “It was a swift response to the empty shelves at the supermarkets. But it’s also helped keep our brand alive, particularly at Sarehole Mill, where earlier this year we had launched a bakehouse, serving fresh bread, pizza and baked treats. We now have regular customers who didn’t even know the mill was there.”
The People’s History Museum theme for 2020 is migration and issues faced by migrant communities. Prior to lockdown, it was working with the charity Heart & Parcel (which runs Esol, English for speakers of other languages, courses for women) on an event called Cook Eat Write Share, which it moved online, with cooking demonstrations and a moderated chat function so people could ask questions and talk about recipes.
“We’d already had huge success, so we knew it would work well,” says Zofia Kufeldt, the programme officer at the People’s History Museum. “Cooking and talking are so important right now. Those joining us through their love of food will find themselves part of an interesting conversation.
Museums may have found themselves playing a different role in people’s lives over the past few months, but new connections and strong loyalties have been built through food.
Deborah Mulhearn is a freelance journalist