For those who firmly believe that “the best things in life are chocolate,” Gilcrease Museum’s new exhibit is going to come as something of a surprise.
“Chocolate is something we’ve come to take for granted, so I think people are going to be amazed at the role chocolate has played in history,” said Mark Dolph, associate curator of history at the museum. “And then, there’s the whole process of turning the seeds of a particular tree into a consumable product.”
The exhibit was created and is being toured by Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History and is an immersive, interactive experience.
“It’s a very educational exhibit, but it’s also a lot of fun,” Dolph said. “There are a lot of interactive elements that will appeal to adults and children.”
Chocolate is made from the seeds of the cacao tree, a lowland rainforest plant that can only grow in a relatively narrow region, no more than 20 degrees north or south of the equator.
The seeds grow in football-shaped pods and are pollinated by midge flies, a tiny creature about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.
The Mayan culture in Central America was the first to make something out of these seeds — a frothy, spicy drink consumed primarily during religious festivals and rituals.
When the Aztec civilization rose to prominence in Mexico, it too developed a taste for chocolate, but since the trees could not be cultivated in their territories, cacao seeds became a valuable article of trade, to the point where the seeds were often used as currency.
That cost of importing cacao also meant that, for the Aztecs, chocolate was reserved for royalty.
“When the Spaniards sailed into the New World looking for gold, they also found treasure stores of cacao seeds,” Dolph said.
Chocolate crossed the Atlantic, where the product of the cacao seed was first combined with its natural partner — sugar.
“That was the innovation that led to chocolate becoming a commercialized product,” Dolph said.
It also remained very much a product for the elites, as demonstrated by one gallery in the exhibit that contains examples of the sort of china cups and sterling silver pots that the upper class of Europe used to imbibe chocolate.
This demand, however, had a dark side.
“The Europeans’ discovery of chocolate was also very much the beginning of slavery in the Americas,” Dolph said. “As Europeans began colonizing the cacao-growing regions, they used forced labor, primarily of the native peoples, to produce more and more chocolate, as well as sugar cane.
“When the native populations were exhausted, the Europeans turned to Africa, importing slaves to the Americas, or creating cacao-growing areas in Africa,” he said. “However, one of the major chocolate companies, Cadbury, which was founded by Quakers, protested this practice and boycotted slave-produced cacao.”
European innovations create such now-familiar chocolate products as “Dutch Process” cocoa powder, milk chocolate and processes to turn chocolate into a substance that could be molded into a variety of solid candies.
“And in America, Milton Hershey founded an entire town to make chocolate products,” Dolph said.
The exhibit includes a gallery on the marketing of chocolate in the 20th century and how it has in some ways returned to its original roots as a ritual object, thanks to its use as holiday gifts — from heart-shaped boxes of bonbons for Valentine’s Day to rabbit-shaped candies for Easter, from the gold foil-covered “gelt” given at Hanukkah, to the treats tossed into bags at Halloween.
The interactive element includes an olfactory component.
“In some of the galleries,” Dolph said, “we will be pumping in the scent of chocolate.”