Monday, 4 May 2009

An Edible Institution

Museums have been a mainstay of tourism since the Victorian era, but can be dry and dull. Not so Italy's very own Museum of Pasta. Guest blogger John Richards reports on the al dente institution...

I don't think there are enough museums dedicated to food.

Yes, I hear you scoff. "What about the Museu de la Xocolata (Museum of Chocolate) in Barcelona? Or the German Bratwurst Museum in the small village of Holzhausen near Erfurt in Thuringia?"

Well yes, those are obvious. But why has Australia never opened a centre devoted to worshipping the meat pie? Or a National Institute of the Lamington?

Not only would these centres boost tourism and celebrate Aussie culture, they could be housed in buildings shaped like Enormous Things. A Big Pie, for example, or a Giant Lamington. You can see the commemorative snowdomes now, can't you?

Like coffee and pastel-coloured scooters, the food museum is something the Italians do best. I can never visit Rome without popping into the Museo Nazionale delle Paste Alimentari (National Museum of Pasta Foods).

Located near the Trevi Fountain, the Pasta Museum contains eleven rooms dedicated to the history and celebration of pasta. The museum recommends the use of their audio guide, a personal audio player that talks you through the various displays.

The spoken English on the guide is idiosyncratic, although that could be the museum's signature style – for example, this is taken from their advertising material: "The Museum will, in fact, bear witness to the significance and vocational aspects of pasta, to sum up, its potential as a precious and balanced food for the well-being and enjoyment of mankind."

Yes, it's easy to mock bad English by non-native speakers – so let's do some more of that. Visitors will learn "the history of pasta, production machinery, didactics of production technologies, nutritional information, pasta in ancient and modern art, etc. The visit is surely of great interest for every kind of schools and particularly for technical and hotel schools."

How true. As you glide through the museum, the excitable recorded voice directs your gaze to items of interest – a Neapolitan pasta tree, for example (a metal frame used for drying fresh pasta), or pictures of famous people eating pasta. Or there – in the corner to your right – a "needing trow".

I spent some time puzzling over this one before realising what my recorded voice had intended. "Oh, a trough!" I exclaimed, far too loudly, startling the Japanese students ahead. As I was leaving the room a confused woman behind me – also wearing a headset – suddenly shouted "oh, a trough!" – setting a pattern that continued for the rest of the visit.

As the museum's website tells us, "Room after room, the Museum will help the visitors discover how pasta is born from wheat and what processes are used for mixing and drying it… from rudimental machinery, such as the first stone grinders, to the modern pasta-making machinery."

The most important phrase here is possibly "room after room"… after room. After room. Even with hundreds of years of history to cover, you'll still be seeing a lot of Neapolitan kneading troughs and pictures of the young Sophia Loren.

The repetition in the exhibits is, however, enlivened by the audio guide. His unique delivery turns everyday directions into startling commands, such as "which you will now see… BEHIND YOU!", lending an unexpected Blair Witch Project flavour to the whole experience.

The final room is dedicated to art inspired by pasta. These include an illustration of a tank firing parpadelle, and a model playhouse in which pasta plays all the roles, much like Eddie Murphy in Norbit.

The museum is usually open seven days a week, although sadly its website tells us it's temporarily closed for restoration. Entry is €10, although there is a discount for children and "military personnel in uniform". Children in military uniform are presumably admitted free.

John Richards is still eating pasta, though he's stopped looking for secret meanings in the patterns formed by alphabet spaghetti. His musings on life and culture can be found at his blog, The Outland Institute.