Arts & Culture

New Haffenreffer museum exhibit explores beer’s cross-cultural roots

Installation examines social significance of beer, highlights roots of museum’s founding family

senior staff writer
Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Haffenreffer Museum Student Group began showcasing two years of  work this summer with its exhibition “Brewed for Thought: A Cross-Cultural Exploration of Beer and Brewing.” The installation aims to educate the public on alcohol’s social significance around the world by focusing on beer’s evolving cultural role in countries such as Bolivia, Peru, Kenya, Nepal, Tibet and the United States.

“Brewed for Thought” holds a special significance for the Haffenreffer family. Members of the family are brewers, and own the Haffenreffer, Narragansett and Fall River Breweries. The family donated its private museum to the University 60 years ago.

“Brewed for Thought” casts a new light on what many here see as an American cultural staple, illuminating the important and diverse meanings it carries in other countries. For example, one portion of the exhibit explores the significance of honey beer as a symbol of masculinity and elders’ social status among the Kamba people of Eastern Kenya.

“We initially didn’t really have a theme in mind,” said Luiza Silva ’18, a member of the student group.  Upon finding that the Haffenreffer’s private collection contained many artifacts related to brewing beer,  the group focused on “connecting that to the museum’s history,” Silva added.

The coincidence of the museum’s 60th anniversary and a project on the Haffenreffer family’s beer-related roots reflects a “nice serendipity,” said Kevin Smith, deputy director and chief curator of the museum. The exhibition, which will be on display until Dec. 18, involved absolutely “no taste testing in the official parts of the exhibition development process,” Smith added.

The Haffenreffer Museum Student Group acts as a bridge between the museum and the student population.“We decided on the topic, selected all the objects, researched and wrote the text panels and helped physically install the exhibit with help from some of the staff,” said Candy Rui ’18.

Smith noted the difficulty in preventing potential controversy with the content of the exhibit. “The interesting thing was to work with (the students) to think through the complexities of working with brewing and beer at a time when many university administrations are having complex conversations about drinking on campus,” he said.

The team had to be cautious in devoting the campus’ public space to alcohol, he added. “We had to think carefully about what we were saying … that we’re sending messages that are honest, truthful and ethical.”

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