A butcher’s shop window, a bistro and a supermarket aisle are the familiar yet incongruous scenes that greet visitors to the Meat the Future exhibition, which runs until January 2022 at Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
Sitting in the museum’s Victorian cabinetry, these scenes present the latest research on the health and environmental impacts of meat production and consumption, while offering visitors alternative options and innovative ideas.
Ellena Grillo and Kelly Richards, both exhibition officers at the museum, created Meat the Future in collaboration with the university’s Livestock, Environment and People (Leap) research programme. The exhibition is funded by the Wellcome Trust and is the latest instalment in the museum’s Contemporary Science and Society series, which began in 2014.
Over the series, Grillo and Richards have developed a model of working that places research at the heart of their exhibitions, while telling a compelling and accessible story for visitors. They admit it is a challenging and time-consuming process.
The team pulls together a cohort of researchers that will help to tell the exhibition’s story. The lead researcher sits on the steering committee that oversees the exhibition and signs off the final content.
“One of the challenges is to represent all of the research, but also pick out the threads that are going to lead visitors through the whole exhibition as smoothly as possible,” says Richards.
Once Grillo and Richards have interviewed all the researchers, they create an interpretation plan. “It’s a wish list,” says Grillo. “It is then a process of whittling it down and putting visitors in that process. We keep doing that until we have our story.”
Ultimately, the content is limited by the 32 metres of exhibition space and its wood and glass Victorian cabinets. The team also has a word limit of 80 to 120 words for interpretation panels, and 2,500 in total (plus captions).
“You can say a lot in a caption and do a lot with objects, which can add in facets and complexity,” says Richards. “We also use projections, interactives and talking heads to add nuance and balance.”
The Meat the Future exhibition is organised around the central theme of a food hall. Working with specialist design agency Easy Tiger Creative, the team has transformed the cabinets into contemporary displays that use familiar food settings.
The museum’s collection and specimen staff were also involved in the process at an early stage. While the museum’s collection had limited specimens connected directly to meat, it appears in a South American rainforest display examining the impact of meat on biodiversity, which features a spider monkey, a Cayenne stubfoot toad and Euglossine bees.
The other displays feature loaned objects from Reading’s Museum of English Rural Life and an English longhorn cow skull from Cambridge Veterinary School.
Damien Hirst’s 1994 artwork, Cain and Abel, which comprises two calves suspended in formaldehyde solution, greets visitors in the museum’s courtyard.
The different settings offer visitors various aspects of the debate around meat. In the bistro, they can get the facts and figures of meat consumption and production.
For Grillo, the supermarket section is a space with which every visitor will connect. It examines the tactics used by retailers to encourage us to buy more of certain products, and looks at the future of shopping.
It also features one of the innovative ideas to come from Leap – ecolabel packaging that highlights the environmental impact of an item’s production, including the chemicals used, such as fertiliser, and water consumption. Visitors can see the labels in action at the museum’s Eat the Future Cafe, which opened in June. The low-impact venue has a 50% vegan menu and uses local suppliers.
The exhibition has several interactive and digital elements, including a specifically designed shopping site for people to work out the carbon footprint of their shopping habits and an audio walk that features opinions on a low-meat future from a range of experts across agriculture, the environment and food production.
For Grillo and Richards, the key to the exhibition is balance, as they are keen to point out it is not a campaign against meat. “We have tried hard not to place it all on the individual, as it is a global issue for governments, law-makers and industries to solve,” says Grillo. “People can make their own choices, but we don’t want anyone to feel judged.”
Caroline Parry is a freelance journalist