The Museum of Canned Food collects America’s food culture through stories preserved in the ubiquitous tin can. This collection reveals our collective desire for sustenance, security, and identity.
An unassuming material object at first glance, the stories packed within a simple tin can have the ability to span both space and time. For more than 200 years, the metal can has impacted us economically and environmentally, informing our health and nutrition, fueling travel and conquest, replacing and reinforming our culture and traditions, and revealing a sense of safety and security—or disparity.
This project presents canned food as a cultural object, creating space for personal reflections that are heartwarming and heartbreaking, many times shared, but always authentic.
The ubiquity of canned food provides a unique opportunity for personal introspections that bypass the ignominy of economic hardship, revealing a truth-telling of cultural, social, and economic realities that instead of being judged are positioned on a pedestal in a museum. An artifact of importance; a valued cultural object; a perspective worth protecting.
The Museum positions authenticity as valued, legitimizing the authentic self through the valuing of a life living.
This collection speaks to how the tin can, inseparable from its branding and advertising, has defined our culinary landscape across the entire continent. There is a legacy of canned food that has impacted our environment, our bodies, and our lifestyle, not to mention our sense of belonging.
Through these stories, we can begin to see the greater imprint our eating experiences leave on us.
The tin can embodies the mobility, exploitation, security, and vulnerability within the American story. By collecting these personal accounts, we can better understand how our contemporary eating patterns fuel a nation while witnessing our struggles and triumphs, our joys and our pains.
With this collection I hope to illuminate our culinary past, recontextualize our present, and imagine an expanded American story.
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This project was born out of a residency at StudioWorks, in Eastport, Maine.
Beginning in the 1870s, the canning of smoked herring became the predominant industry in Eastport, lasting nearly a century. The Maine Historical Society states: “They were a natural resource that supplied tasty fast food, the means of employment and the basis of profitable investment. The waterfronts of both towns [Lubec and Eastport] provided the perfect location for the industry, and a working landscape of canneries, smokehouses, and other businesses on wharves grew up.”
That industry helped change the American landscape, culture, and, ultimately, us. As they say, “You are what you eat.” The Museum of Canned Food is interested in learning who we are . . . from what we ate.
J. Matthew Thomas
J. Matthew Thomas is an artist, curator, architect, and urban designer from Taos, New Mexico. He is interested in exploring the systems and patterns that structure our daily lives. From food & water to land use, Thomas utilizes community engagement strategies to help educate, illuminate, and explore the complex built environment around us.