Audiences were asked to prepare their own dishes at home in advance, following a recipe and spice kit provided by Leo, before coming together for an evening of tasting as Leo shared stories unearthed from the museum’s archives.
We’ve been working with Leo for about two years now. I first saw him at the Edinburgh Fringe with his show The Midnight Soup, which was about his grandmother and her diary. The experience of being part of an audience of instant companions, who cooked, ate and shared stories of grandparents, death and hope stayed with me and I approached Leo to start working with us at the museum.
Leo’s work and research explores "commensality" – the social practice of eating together and the social bonds that are created while sharing the same meal together. Leo approaches this from a theatre and performance perspective, describing himself as a theatre chef, which was an approach I had not discovered before.
Serendipitously, while working with Leo I also took part in the Culture Reset mentorship programme funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation, which gave me the space to develop a call to action for our museum to create spaces for people to have more complex and nuanced conversations. This aligned perfectly with Leo’s practice.
As a museum we already knew the power of food as a tool for helping people from diverse backgrounds find common ground. Jewish food in particular has very strong cultural and religious identities that vary throughout different communities. It also links and connects to other cultures and countries; it creates a multi-sensory accessible point for people connect. Also it’s fun, tactile and playful!
Eat the Archives came from a second year of events based around communally cooking and eating in a museum setting. In the first year we hosted events in people’s homes and local community centres before culminating in a big event, Good Appetite, hosted at Manchester Art Gallery, bringing an audience of more than 60 to eat together while watching films created for the project.
We switched approaches in this second year. Rather than trying to find detailed descriptions of food in our collection stories, we focused on using food to enhance stories connected to the museum’s three core themes of journeys, communities and identities.
This process has benefitted from being trialled on Zoom with our newly formed foodie group, who gave us tips on how easy the recipes are to create at home and how food makes them re-evaluate a particular story or community.
Eat the Archives was six months in planning and was never originally envisioned as an online event. At first, we were reticent to do it online – food is not an easy thing to transfer to a digital format. But there was a real yearning and relevance for the experience of connecting, sharing, and eating together – especially in this extended lockdown.
There were things we had to change. We originally planned to share three stories and three courses, but we cut this down to two stories and one shared meal. We have found you need to take things at a slower pace online, especially if you want to create a safe and relaxed atmosphere.
We also wanted to keep a tactile element, so we decided to post the spices and recipe cards to our audience as a special gift for the event. This also helped keep the event accessible as some of the spices can be expensive or hard to obtain. This way all people needed to provide was rice, cabbage, and onions.
The use of Zoom break-out rooms as "dining tables" for smaller groups of six to eight people to eat the meal together, in the second half of the event, enabled hosts to gently facilitate the conversation. The audience were really responsive and the shared experience of eating together gave everyone a sense of commensality even though it was remote.
We also found that almost everyone had pre-prepared the food as instructed, which was something we never expected.
There was a real appetite for the event (if you’ll excuse the pun) and it was heartening to engage so many people from across the UK. This is a positive we have found across our online events and is something we will aim to maintain going forward.
We have found that audiences are increasingly tech savvy, and also much more forgiving if the tech aspects aren’t that slick. It’s the depth and quality of the experience that’s important, rather than presenting a seamless hi-tech experience. Being open and human in presentation style goes a long way towards creating a convivial atmosphere.
We’re really pleased we made the decision to convert Eat the Archives to an online event and I think we have a real commitment to continuing to provide high quality online experiences for those who might not be able to physically experience the building once we’re open.
The Eat the Archives project will continue over the summer as part of Leo’s artist residency with the museum. It will create a theatrical dining experience like no other, in which audiences will be able to physically dine together as they share stories, recipes and memories in a variety of settings.
Laura Seddon is the creative producer at Manchester Jewish Museum