Most museums seek to inspire and delight visitors, regaling them with collections of beautiful artworks and fascinating historical relics. A new museum in Sweden has a rather different goal: to hammer the senses with a display of some of the world’s most reviled foods.
The aptly titled Disgusting Food Museum, which opened recently in the coastal city of Malmo, features 80 dishes from around the world that for one reason or another have earned the epithet of being “disgusting.”
As Deutsche Welle reports, this curatorial menu of curiosities comes from the mind of Samuel West, a psychologist who previously created the Museum of Failure. With his latest project, West is not simply trying to make visitors lose their lunch, but instead hopes to explore the cultural subjectivity of food and challenge our concepts about why certain meals provoke, in the words of Merriam-Webster, such “strong feeling[s] of dislike or disinclination.”
After all, food-related disgust has been shown to be subjective. “[Y]ou still have to learn from your surroundings what you should find disgusting,” West tells Christina Anderson of the New York Times.
Visitors can smell and taste some of the foods, and lest you doubt that the museum means business, its tickets also double as barf bags.
Among the dishes on display are Icelandic fermented shark meat that nearly felled Gordon Ramsey; a type of Sardinian cheese, which is sourced from the milk-filled stomach of a slaughtered baby goat; cooked guinea pig, or cuy, which is considered a delicacy of the Andean diet; not to mention the infamously foul-smelling Durian fruit from Thailand. Such American staples as Twinkies and root beer also made the cut. As West tells Lilit Marcus and Rob Picheta of CNN, these items don’t always tickle the fancies of people outside of the States. “If you give root beer to a Swede they will spit it out and say it tastes like toothpaste,” he says.
Nor do local delicacies escape the museum’s scrutiny. Those who are not faint of stomach can take a whiff of surströmming, a fermented herring traditionally eaten at the end of August; the fish’s pungent smell is wafted into a photo booth, which captures visitors’ reaction to the scent.
When evaluating foods’ ick factor, museum staff considered not only taste, smell and texture, but also “background”—like whether or not animals were ill-treated during the making of the food. So pork, which many consider to be a tasty treat, is on display because of its connection to the factory farming industry.
“[W]hen you look … the way that pigs are held in factory farms, when you look at the antibiotics [that are used in factory farming]—that is absolutely disgusting and could potentially be life-threatening for humans," museum director Andreas Ahrens tells Deutsche Welle.
West was, in fact, inspired to create the museum because he is concerned about the ecological impact of meat-eating. Why, he asked himself, are many people willing to eat meat from animals like pigs, but recoil at more sustainable protein sources like insects?
“The obstacle is disgust,” West tells Anderson of the Times—and disgust, he hopes to show, is open to interpretation.