Think of it as a behind-the-scenes tour through Willy Wonka’s factory with an extremely knowledgeable guide at your side.
The worlds of natural history and science melt together in the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science’s new exhibit, Chocolate: The Exhibition. Opening last Saturday with a special Family Night event, the traveling exhibit takes up residence near Old Town until March of next year, giving chocoholics ample opportunity to sample the backstory behind chocolate’s long journey to becoming the world’s favorite sweet snack.
The two-story exhibit begins downstairs, taking museum guests into a faux South American jungle to trace the botany behind the cacao tree, the bitter seeds of which have been utilized for centuries by Native peoples. Vivid displays show how ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures employed the seeds for a variety of uses, from medicinal to religious. Methods of harvesting the seeds and its use as a major form of trade are all explored.
“Many of us love chocolate, but few know the origins behind the candy,” says Gary Romero, interim executive director at NMMNHS. “Chocolate: The Exhibition offers us a unique opportunity for visitors of all ages to learn about the history of chocolate and its impact on cultures all over the world.”
After exploring the New World, guests are invited to travel upstairs in the museum to follow cacao on its long journey to Europe where—roasted and combined with sugar—it becomes what we all know and crave as modern-day chocolate. The craze for chocolate during the Industrial Revolution is detailed; as the narrative flows into the 20th century, guests get a small taste of how some of the more familiar trappings of the foodstuff—from chocolate milk powder to candy-stuffed Valentine’s Day hearts—got their start.
“Our museum team is exploring the wide world of chocolate including topics ranging from the history of chocolate to the use of chocolate as currency,” says Deb Novak*, director of education at NMMNHS. “The programming will arouse our scientific senses by teaching about the different types of chocolate, how they have been used and how historically chocolate was consumed as a drink before it was a bar.”
During the nine-month run of the exhibition, visitors will have the opportunity to see expert chocolatiers share their chocolate curiosities, explore the chemistry of chocolate and even cast chocolate fossils. The museum is planning an extensive series of chocolate educational offerings throughout the summer and fall. Head to the museum’s website (nmnaturalhistory.org) to get the latest information on adult nights, a stimulating chocolate lecture series, additional Family Days, in-exhibit demonstrations, hands-on classes, summer camp days and more.
Admission to Chocolate: The Exhibition is included with a regular museum exhibit ticket. The museum, located at 1801 Mountain Rd. NW, is open Wednesday through Monday from 9am to 5pm.
*Full disclosure: Deb Novak and Devin O’Leary are married to each other.