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published: March 2004
analytic scripts updated:  October 28, 2010

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Museums and the Web 2003 Papers

Key Ingredients: How the Smithsonian Built an Interactive Web Site for 150 Small Museums

Chuck Barger, Interactive Knowledge, Inc.; Rozanna Sokolowski, Museums on Main Street, Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, USA



In 2003, a new traveling exhibition that explores the diverse and constantly evolving food of the United States began a five-year tour. Key Ingredients: America by Food was created by Museums on Main Street, a partnership of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) and the Federation of State Humanities Councils. The project includes a unique educational Web site that features a timeline of American eating titled 500 Years of American Food. Visitors to this section of the site can explore the rich diversity of American food culture by a wide variety of interesting topics including regions of the country, time periods in American history, and food related themes.

But the most interesting feature of the Key Ingredients Web site is the fact that it is designed to continue to grow and expand exponentially throughout the five-year tour of the exhibition. The site has two major sections that contained little information when the site was launched in the spring of 2003, but which continue to be populated with new content. As the five identical copies of the exhibit travel to 150 small museums across the country, the Web site will continue to offer new content and a valuable resource for the museums, visitors to the museums and anyone interested in food who has Internet access.

Keywords: American foodways, eating, American Cookbook Project, food, food culture, recipes, Key Ingredients

Key Ingredients Web Site

Key Ingredients is a small but mighty Web site designed to meet several specific criteria of the client - Museums on Main Street, a division of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.  The Key Ingredients exhibit is small and low security.  It's basically a panel show with a few artifacts of interest.  Five copies of the exhibit have been made and the show will travel for five years to over 150 communities all of which have populations of less than 10,000.  The Web site is designed to be a well-designed and highly useful way for these venues to publicize the exhibit.  In many of these rural communities, the Smithsonian Institution coming to town is cause for great celebration.  By publicizing the Web site address with its promotional materials, each venue is linked favorably with the Smithsonian.  The venues which are currently exhibiting Key Ingredients are listed prominently on the home page of the site.  As the exhibit travels extensively over the next five years, the site will serve as an archive for the programming activities it generated.  But more importantly, it will document the local and regional food traditions as well as current places to enjoy the local cuisine as described by the locals who eat there.

Early 20th century woman with her preserves

Figure 1: The Key Ingredients Home Page

400 Years of Food 

In addition to supporting the venues that host the exhibit, the site has excellent content that can be useful whether one has seen the exhibit or not.  A critical piece of the exhibit content is describing American foodways.  That is, how and why Americans eat what they eat. The Web site features an interactive exhibit titled 400 Years of Food.  This section includes 40 different stories that highlight content from the exhibit, but can be organized according to criteria chosen by the Web site visitor.  The story told in the exhibit unfolds in the Web site by interacting with 400 Years of Food.  The interactive timeline allows users to choose their approach to the content from three different organizational schemes: Time Periods, Themes and Regions.  Following is a listing of these topics:

Time Periods

  • 1500 - New World / New Food
  • 1600 - Colonization
  • 1700 - A New Country
  • 1800 - Expansion
  • 1900 - Modernization
  • 1950 - Recent Trends
  • 2000- The Future of Food


  • Growing Food
  • Preparing Food
  • Everyday Food
  • Celebrating with Food


  • Northeast
  • Southeast
  • Midwest
  • Northwest
  • Southwest

Early settlers eating

Figure 2: 500 Years of American Food — an interactive timeline of American foodways

The story of how American cuisine has developed and evolved unfolds in the Web site.  Interested visitors can follow the changes in regional foods, look at the national changes by reviewing information on each century since Columbus or look at broader categories such as growing or preparing foods. 

Eating Across America

Two key words that sum up American cuisine are diverse and regional.  In order to capture this important concept, the Web site is designed to give each of the 150 venues an opportunity to share their unique food traditions with the world.  In the section titled Eating Across America, each venue will be able to post information about that communities' contribution to American cuisine.  Using an easy to understand, password protected front-end, each venue can post photos of community, list all the programming and events planned to support the Key Ingredients exhibition, and share information about community food festivals and local eating establishments with the rest of the country.

Eating from coast to coast

Figure 3: Eating Across America will offer in-depth information on food related events and places to eat in over 150 small American towns

The value of this part of the Web site to venues hosting the exhibition cannot be overstated.  The majority of communities visited by this exhibit will have a rich heritage of foodways that span several generations.  The site is designed to give anyone in the world who visits the site a chance to glimpse how food has shaped and continues to influence the lives of the people living in that region.  Programming designed to support the exhibit typically includes food festivals, bake-offs, chili cook-offs, cooking lessons, lectures on the local cuisine's history and many other topics.  Many of the venues have taken the opportunity offered by this site to upload photographs of their community and events related to the exhibit.

Pancake Breakfast

Figure 4: An image of the painting that won first prize in the Key Ingredients art competition recently in Huntsville, Utah has been uploaded to the Web site

 Another great source of information on the communities who will host the exhibit is the listing of places to eat.  This section allows the venue to promote local restaurants, diners, saloons, cafeterias, dives or 4-star establishments.  The idea is to document how the locals eat when they go out and to make recommendations for anyone coming to the community who has an appetite but no local experience for what's good to eat.  Ideally this section of the site will create a rich archive for travelers, tourists and locals to use when planning a trip through some of America's less populated regions.

The American Cookbook Project

The Key Ingredients exhibit hopes to inspire each visitor to reflect on the unique food traditions that have shaped his or her life.  The Web site is designed to allow anyone to do a lot more than reflect.  A section titled The American Cookbook Project is a forum, open to the public, for sharing recipes and stories.  Anyone can submit a recipe and tell a story or share a memory that is attached to the dish the recipe creates.  The person who submits the recipe can also choose from a number of categories in which to classify their submission.  Newspapers across the country, including the Chicago Tribune have reviewed the Web site and urged their readers to add to The American Cookbook Project.  This section of the site is growing and will likely grow exponentially as the exhibit appears around the country.

Figure 5: The American Cookbook Project has the potential become the largest online recipe database in the country

Because the backend of The American Cookbook Project is a robust database, visitors to the site can search through the recipes based on four useful categories: Recipe Type, Story Type, Heritage Type and State.  Each of the categories is also divided into a number of topics.  For example, anyone interested in the stories that are included with each recipe can sort the selections by eighteen unique categories including; Family Traditions, Comfort Foods, Prize Winners and Food Disasters.  Anyone can submit a new recipe and story any time.

Joan Salee's recipe for Warm Pudding

Figure 6: A recipe for Warm Pudding submitted by a cook in Kentucky

The on-line form is easy to use and allows ample guidance for completing all the necessary information needed to list a recipe and tell a story.  Anyone submitting a new recipe and story also chooses the appropriate categories from a series of pull down menus.  A Museums on Main Street staff member reviews recipes as they are submitted and uploads those that are appropriate for addition to the site.  Currently there are 75 recipes listed but the expectation is that the site will host hundreds of recipes and stories within a few years.

Promoting the Site and Growing the Content

The Smithsonian, Interactive Knowledge and the Federation of State Humanities Councils have undertaken a number of activities designed to encourage everyone involved to build the site's content. Communities participate in two planning meetings before they receive the exhibition. At both meetings, communities are reminded of the Web site and its ability to share their piece of the food story.  At the planning meetings, written instructions for entering content into the Web site are handed out and if possible, there is a brief demonstration of the process.  Most of the communities have seen the usefulness of the Internet for promoting new programs and exhibitions.  Nonetheless, there is usually some reluctance to embrace this technology at first.  The most successful venues in terms of the amount of content uploaded to the site as well as the number of new stories and recipes added from the community to The American Cookbook Project, seem to be those that receive a call from Interactive Knowledge to remind them of the opportunity to upload content before the exhibit opens. 

Current PR efforts have already reached over 500 food writers at local newspapers and periodicals across the country. This effort has resulted in a number of great reviews and increased activity at the Web site. Articles have appeared in small circulation, rural weeklies as well as some of the largest newspapers in the country. The Key Ingredients Web site will be viewed as a success if everyone follows the advice of Chicago Tribune Food Writer Renee Enna in her glowing review of the Web site last fall.  She concludes her article with the admonition to "Check it out — and don't forget to add a recipe of your own."