It’s awfully hard to explain chocolate without eating it – but in “Chocolate: The Exhibition,” Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry does an excellent job, and gives families a fun, multimedia reason to make the trip to South Lake Union.
Just opened and on through September, “Chocolate” offers an image-rich tour through the history of this delicacy from rainforests and Mayans to contemporary Seattle makers, pulling in a millennium of detail and culture along the way with replicas, wall photos, videos and touchscreens – not to mention truffle cushions, more on that later – that strike a perfect balance between engaging and informative, especially for kids. And yes, there are tastings, too, in weekend programming through summer.
After a dark-brown entryway with chocolate boxes and piped-in chocolate smells, the exhibit opens with a rainforest: a fake one, that is, but still pretty fun. A central “cacao tree” looks realistic and gives and idea of the football-sized cacao pods, while panels offer bilingual, kid-friendly explanations of compost, pollination and ecosystems in cacao plantations.
Turn a corner, though, and you start a walk-through journey into chocolate’s history that is fascinating for adults and kids alike. Replicas of Mayan chocolate pots (with glyphs explaining one belonged to Lord Snake Jaguar) and incense burners explain the cultural and religious significance; there are stories and images of Mayan cacao traders in Mexico and a 1976 unearthing of a Mayan backyard cacao garden in El Salvador. The exhibit goes on through the Aztecs (chocolate as religious offerings, trading currency, food) with a handy kid-height cacao bean abacus for calculating an Aztec grocery bill. Big wall graphics explain the Spanish conquest (including Hernán Cortés discovering a treasury full of beans rather than gold) and the migration of chocolate (and other New World commodities) to Europe, with the ensuing era of colonization.
Whole rooms recreate fancy 17th-century European chocolate houses with fine china, art and the Spanish chocolate frothing stick called a molinillo; the contrast with the sweaty slave plantations that supported them is sharp, and “Chocolate” doesn’t shy away from it, or from the ecological and fair-trade issues that now surround the chocolate industry.
Wending its way through big displays of vintage American candy paraphernalia and other fascinating history (including a wall-size photo of a Paris chocolate factory c. 1900), the exhibit finally ends at a photo-op that kids will love: an oversize chocolate box wall, where you can pose on fluffy brown truffle cushions.
This being a traveling show, the Seattle component is small, but does take in some of the city’s many local makers such as Fran’s and Theo’s, with a handy map and tastings every weekend.
“Chocolate” is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays) through Sept. 28. Chocolate tastings: on the hour 11 a.m.-3 p.m. every Sunday and select Saturdays from June 22; $5/$3. Chocolate-making demonstrations: 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays in September; free. Chocolate-making class: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. July 12 and Sept. 13; $5. “Chocolate” movie night: from 6 p.m. Aug. 23 in Lake Union Park; free. Chocolate-themed free First Thursday: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sept. 4. Museum admission $17 adults/$15 senior/$14 students, military/free for 14 and under. MOHAI, 860 Terry Ave. N, Seattle. 206-324-1126, mohai.org/chocolate