Chocolate The Exhibition @ Denver Museum of Nature & Science

chocolate the exhibition signage dmnsChocolate. Who doesn’t love this mysterious confection that’s the basis of so many delicious treats and desserts? I like chocolate enough to have invested in an organic chocolate food startup years ago, not to mention the various forms of chocolate I enjoy every week, from candy bars and chocolate cake to hot cocoa. Chocolate has chemical characteristics too, notably theobromine, caffeine, phenylethylamine (PEA), and anandamide, all of which help our brains find chocolate tasty and enjoyable.

When the Denver Museum of Nature & Science announced that after the departure of its poisons exhibit [which we visited and enjoyed: The Power of Poison at the DMNS] it would replace it with an exhibition about the history of chocolate, to open on Valentine’s Day weekend, of course I was interested!

Last Saturday, Feb 13 my 12yo K- and I headed to the museum with her pal A- joining us and plans to meet up with a group of friends who also happen to be museum junkies!

Unlike the excellent Sherlock Holmes exhibit, “Chocolate The Exhibition: A Delicious History” doesn’t require a separate admission ticket and there was no queue or waiting time involved. The reason became clear after we entered the exhibition space: it’s considerably more modest in scope and size, really focused on the history of chocolate, particularly the Mayan and Aztec history with cacao, a fairly modest bean that grows in small football sized pods on cacao trees, deep in the jungle:

cacao tree jungle, chocolate exhibition

In fact, the first Chocolate House didn’t open in London until 1657 and within 50 years there were over 2,000 chocolate houses in London alone.

In a fine example of unintended consequences, the rise of chocolate as a beverage created a huge demand for sugar as a sweetener, which pushed much exploration and exploitation of cheap labor (read “slaves”) throughout the developing world. This meant that sugar was a hugely profitable import business and exploitation was the order of the day, as this display forcibly highlights:

one teaspoon of sugar = one day of a slave's life

As a life-long fan of Cadbury chocolate, I was impressed to learn that founder William Cadbury led a protest against the slave labor required to harvest cacao, threatening to boycott supplies with poor working conditions in a public letter published in 1907. In 1910 Cadbury led a multinational boycott of these plantations, leading among other things to the US Congress banning cacao shown to be the product of slave labor from these plantations.

Chocolate as a powdered drink — Ovaltine, Nestlés Quik, etc — showed up in the early 1800s as inventors kept fiddling with recipes to create the quality and taste of the powdered drinking chocolate — cocoa — while making it easier to dissolve in milk. Then there was a positive explosion of companies offering cocoa in metal tins, particularly around the turn of the 20th century:

tins of powdered drinking chocolate cocoa

Milk and powered cocoa was popular for decades prior to the arrival of milk chocolate. In fact, milk chocolate didn’t appear until 1875, when chocolate maker Daniel Peter teamed up with Henri Nestlé to create chocolate with condensed milk which allowed chocolate makers to use less cacao and made the confection sweeter and smoother. A win-win that dominates the chocolate market to this day.

Plenty of other museum-goers were enthralled by the historical information, as you can see in this photo:

crowds at the chocolate exhibition dmns

The Exhibition is essentially a walking tour of the history of cacao, starting in the jungles where it’s found and harvested to the early Mayan and Aztec civilizations, to the rise of cacao in Spain and European countries in the 15th and 16th century, through its rise as a popular confection in the Industrial Age and into the 20th, and now 21st century.

Chocolate was an important part of the World War II soldier’s ration, though I was surprised to learn that it was formulated to give the chocolate greater nutritional value and a higher melting point, which produced bars with “the taste of a boiled potato”. Indeed, “D-rations were meant to be less tempting than regular chocolate. The military’s rationale was to discourage soldiers from devouring their rations, which were intended to serve as emergency food, not dessert.”

give to the american chocolate fund, wwii poster

Rather takes the romance out of troops in the trenches pulling out their Hershey bars, doesn’t it? Ah well, sometimes fact has to trump fiction, I suppose.

Upon leaving Chocolate The Exhibition there is a modest gift shop and sampling area where you can purchase exotic beverages and chocolates…

chocolate the exhibition dmns gift shop / tasting area

We were pulled in, of course, and bought a couple of treats, including the home-made “ding-dong” we tried, with chocolate cake, a home-made marshmallow filling and chocolate coating.

The peanut butter confection was good, but it was the ding-dong that won our taste test, determined to be quite tasty and quickly eaten by my 12yo charges. It was hard to wrest it away long enough to take a photograph!

home made ding-dong chocolate cake confection

I did manage to get a bite and it was quite delicious. What caught my attention just as much, however, was the innovative corn husk serving dish the museum was using. You can sort of see it in the photo, but it was basically three corn husk leaves in a “boat” shape. Worked great and is definitely green, far more environmentally friendly than cardboard or polystyrene. Props to the Museum for this!

And finally, I learned that my daughter’s friend had never been to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, rather to my astonishment, and so we added some time to go through some favorite areas: The small Egyptian room (she found the mummies “creepy”) and the beautiful Gems and Minerals exhibit. The girls were tired by that point so we headed home to Boulder, an afternoon well spent and quite enjoyable.

Chocolate The Exhibition was definitely interesting and well assembled, but for my tastes it spent too much time and square footage on the very early history of cacao with the Mayans and Aztecs and too little exploring the culture of Chocolate Houses and the rise of chocolate as a major foodstuff in Western Culture. Perhaps a cultural bias of mine, but even one display of what artisans are doing with chocolate as an ingredient or even a display of weird chocolate candies from around the world would have been a nice ending note. Or, dare I say it, a sweet finish?

And you can figure out your chocolate personality too. Mine’s “milk chocolate”:

what's your chocolate personality?

Chocolate The Exhibition is at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science from February 12-May 8, 2016. Museum admission required, but there’s no additional cost for the exhibition tour.

Disclosure: The Denver Museum of Nature & Science supplied me with tickets so we could check out the new exhibit.

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