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When was the last time you were served a beverage as part of a museum exhibit? 

Never? image 483Teapot Unknown English"Teapot," 1750, England (Staffordshire), stoneware, salt glaze, porcelain enamel. Photo courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts

Bitter|Sweet: Coffee, Tea & Chocolate evokes warm drinks not only by name, but treats those upon completion of the exhibit to tastes of two distinct blends of hot chocolate—a Mexican version made with water and cinnamon; the other follows an 18th century European recipe with milk and notes of vanilla and honey.

Why this attention to hot chocolate at the Detroit Institute of Arts’ latest special exhibit, you may be asking yourself? As the museum’s first show to engage—quite literally—with all five of the museum-goer’s senses, the exhibit is a history lesson in the trade of commodities that began in Europe in the late 16th century, of class culture, and of the evolution in tastes through the transfer of goods and immigration.

image 493The Chinese Emperor 1766 German"The Chinese Emperor," Hoechst, Johann Peter Melchior, 1766, hard-paste porcelain with polychrome enamel and gold. Photo courtesy of the Detroit Institute of ArtsAt its root, Bitter|Sweet is a decorative arts exhibition, curated by Yao-Fen You. The 68 objects on view, the majority of which come from the DIA’s permanent collection and have rarely been shown, encompass ornate tea sets and beverage services, intricate art objects that also have a functional purpose. They tell the tale of these once fancy and expensive beverages making their way to Europe via China, the Ottoman Empire, Africa and the Americas, and the cultural shifts that occurred as Europeans expanded their palates to introduce coffee and tea into the daily mix. The café culture so prevalent today was shaped in these earlier eras of leisure, with royalty commissioning opulent porcelain and enameled sets to serve to visitors. Teaspoons on view are there to show the addition of cane sugar to sweeten the beverages, but also to highlight the plantation life from which the sugar was procured. 

The display cases are rather sparse for the decorative arts field, allowing for the viewer to focus fully on the detail on rare French Sèvres or Meissen porcelain, or Turkish silverware with turquoise and coral, instead of being overwhelmed by an abundance of objects jammed into each case as has traditionally been the fashion.  

And of course, there is the engagement of all of the senses. Shake a large cacao pod, hear Johann Sebastian Bach’s 1732 comical opera, Coffee Cantata, view paintings that show the transition from beer drinking to tea consumption, and don’t forget to sip and smell the hot chocolate at the end of the exhibit! 

Bitter|Sweet: Coffee, Tea & Chocolate is on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts through March 5, 2017. Adult tickets are $14 ($10 for tri-county residents); children ages 6-17, tickets are $9 ($5 for tri-county residents). Free admission to the exhibit is available to those on field trips in grades 5-12. 

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