Using Fake Food and Artificial Plants in Exhibits

From MediaWiki

Back to complete list of Exhibit Technical Notes

Incorporating food and plants into a display presents several conservation challenges. Careful selection of artificial materials and monitoring are important to prevent damage to collection objects.

How can foodstuffs be incorporated into an exhibit?[edit | edit source]

Although food may be present in historic house or living history museums that demonstrate cooking, real food must never be used in a stationary exhibit. The two main problems associated with such use are migration of fats and oils from the food into the container or surface on which it rests, and increased insect and rodent activity. These problems commonly occur when freshly prepared or dried foods are used in static displays. Conservation-appropriate replica food can be used.

  • Silicone can be tinted, foamed and shaped to form imitation foodstuffs.
  • Painted plaster can be used to imitate breads, pies, potatoes and similar foods.

The silicone rubber is relatively expensive, however, and the work is labor intensive making the product expensive. It is best reserved for long-term displays, seasonal displays requiring the same foods for a number of years, and when acceptable alternatives are difficult to locate.
Such alternatives include commercially available plastic and wax fake food. Although some fake food is produced for the domestic market, most is marketed for restaurant and store displays. It is necessary to research the materials used in making these products.

  • Most types of plastic foods will degrade over time; avoid polyvinyl chloride products all together.
  • Avoid freeze-dried food for exhibits lasting longer than a few weeks; freeze-dried foodstuffs having moderate fat content can start to rot and in humid climates can rehydrate.
  • Dried foods such as apples and nuts are susceptible to mold, rot and insects.

It is absolutely critical that any artificial food be physically isolated from collection objects to prevent migration of unreacted plastic monomers, plasticizers, oils, and dyes into adjacent objects. Examine fake foods frequently and replace at the first sign of deterioration.

Why can’t live flowers and plants be used in exhibits?[edit | edit source]

The use of live flower arrangements, plants and greenery in an exhibit presents several moisture, soilage, and insect threats to the preservation of the collection. Of particular concern are the following issues:

  • dripping leaves, wet vases and overflow from watering plants or topping off vases;
  • moisture migration through porous pottery containers;
  • dropping pollen that forms a sticky, corrosive film which can be difficult to remove;
  • insects brought into the museum on live or dried flowers and plants

When exhibit interpretation mandates the use of flowers or plants, artificial materials provide a good alternative to live or dried flowers and plants. These include silk flowers and plants, and wax fruit, seeds and nuts.

(Note that this TechNote does not address botanical displays or gardens.)