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Museums: Savoring an Old Seducer Volume 55 Number 3, May/June 2002
by Colleen P. Popson

Chocolate has been served in a variety of vessels over the last 2,000 years, including a European chocolate cup and saucer, left, and an Aztec goblet. (© The Field Museum, Photo by John Weinstein) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

I am personally familiar with all the sensations chocolate can inspire: joy, self-loathing, and euphoria among them. First coveted by the Maya almost 2,000 years ago, chocolate, in all its delectable forms--liquid, solid, sweet, bitter, or spicy--continues to be seductive, a fact that should boost attendance at the Field Museum's exhibition, Chocolate, which runs until December 31.

A perfectly rendered life-size reproduction of a cacao tree, its trunk and limbs heavy with the yellow and green pods that hold chocolate-yielding seeds, greets visitors entering the exhibition. Aided by the sounds of rain-forest insects, birds, and monkeys, the setting evokes the beginnings of cacao cultivation by the Maya, the first people to crack open the magic pods and process their seeds for consumption. "The Maya are the ones who started tinkering with chocolate seeds," says Jonathan Haas, an archaeologist and a curator of the exhibition, "and they figured out that by drying them, roasting them, and grinding them, you got something that was delicious. It was a drink used in very ceremonial ways. We have Maya pots, for instance, that show different representations of the ceremony of pouring foaming chocolate."

Wall displays illustrating such courtly scenes lend a striking backdrop to a limited collection of chocolate-related artifacts, including ceramic drinking vessels. One interactive display identifies the Maya glyph for chocolate and tests the visitors' ability to recognize it. Another describes how clay dishes full of cacao seeds and remains of cacao gardens found at the ancient farming community of Cerén (a Maya site preserved in volcanic ash) indicate that both elite and commoners enjoyed access to chocolate.

An Aztec installation uses chocolate to teach visitors about the Aztec market economy. For these ancient people, chocolate was a luxury item, because it had to be imported from considerable distances. It was so valuable, in fact, that cacao beans were used as currency. An interactive mock marketplace allows visitors to determine how much items like textiles and ceramic pots would have been worth in cacao beans.

[image] Harvested by hand, cacao pods hold up to 50 seeds for making chocolate. (Owen Franken/Corbis) [LARGER IMAGE]

With the Spanish Conquest, chocolate was introduced to Europe. While the Maya and Aztecs had seasoned their bitter chocolate drink with peppers, achiote (a locally grown orange flavoring), and vanilla, it was in Europe that chocolate finally met its lifetime partner, sugar. Paintings of Europeans relaxing with cups of chocolate and ornate silver and porcelain chocolate services attest its prized status in the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, before it started to be consumed by the masses.

The remainder of the exhibition is devoted to the mechanization and globalization of chocolate production. Early twentieth-century advertisements espouse the healthful side of chocolate. One compares the health benefits of a Baby Ruth candy bar to those of grapes, while another makes this impressive claim: "By actual energy tests, a 150-lb athlete can skate almost 12 miles on the food-energy contained in one 5 bar of delicious BR candy."

The exhibition also addresses such social issues as slavery on cocoa plantations, child labor, and negative impacts of globalization on family farms. A film shows the taxing process of growing, harvesting, and processing cocoa beans on local farms, where workers, using methods little different from those of the ancient Maya, cut each pod from the trees by hand with machetes. Nearby, a ticker displays the changing price of cocoa on the global exchange. Globalization has caused problems for producing countries, especially Ivory Coast, producer of 43 percent of the world's cocoa, where lower prices have forced farmers to grow more to keep up, resulting in severe deforestation and the exploitation of children as slave labor (an issue that has only recently won attention from U.S. lawmakers and human rights groups).

I would have liked to see more artifacts that reflect the cultural history of chocolate, but considering the ambitious goals of the exhibition, archaeology is well-represented. "What we want to do is talk about process," says Haas. "If you get your visitor to understand something of the global impact of chocolate, that it was the Maya who discovered it, and that it comes from the rain forest, not wrapped in little Hershey bars off the tree, then I think you have a respectable exhibit." In this the museum has succeeded. Best of all, adorers of chocolate are rewarded at the exit with samples of chocolate truffles and a shop full of the sweet in all its alluring forms.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America