Chocolate: The Exhibition is Here!

Photography provided by the Cincinnati Museum Center


I don’t know about you, but just knowing I have a secret stash of chocolate lifts my spirits.

Yes, chocolate has been a part of my life’s happiest memories, beginning when I first went trick-or-treating when I was but a wee one growing up in Madeira. Today, as a magazine writer in my early 60s, I’ve been known to more than occasionally gobble a share-size bag of peanut M&Ms – or two – to ease deadline pressure. And not because martinis give me a headache. It’s just that I – like the other millions of people in this country consuming nearly 3 billion pounds of chocolate each year – absolutely love the delectable sweet treat.

“More than any other food, chocolate delights and enchants…chocolate tantalizes and it comforts,” the late author Neva Beach once said. “Chocolate has…welcomed tired travelers; mountain climbers have saved their last piece of chocolate to celebrate reaching new heights; suitors have given chocolate to show the depth of their devotion. Chocolate has been used as a stimulant, an aphrodisiac and [even] a form of currency.” Yes, chocolate is universal, intertwined throughout many cultures. It knows no boundaries and speaks every language.

And thanks to Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal, “Chocolate: The Exhibition” is here, tracking chocolate’s rich history, now through January 6, 2019. The exhibition, which opened June 29, looks at everything chocolate via vivid environments and imagery, highlighting more than 100 chocolate-related objects accompanied by the tantalizing scent of chocolate wafting throughout the exhibit.

A chocolate lover’s paradise!

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Whitney Owens, chief learning officer at Cincinnati Museum Center, who formerly served as the director of traveling and temporary exhibits at Chicago’s Field Museum, from whence “Chocolate: The Exhibition” originated.

“It’s a fantastic exhibition,” she said. “It looks at something so familiar to all of us, but in a new way. We will have the exhibition here through Halloween, Day of the Dead, Hanukkah and Christmas, so it’s a great opportunity to connect chocolate with several cultural traditions.”


You Say Cocoa, I Say Cacao

“We start off by showing you where chocolate comes from – the cacao seed,” Whitney explained. All the chocolate products we eat – including cocoa – come from cacao seeds, which come from the cacao tree that grows in the rainforests of Central and South America and West Africa.

She assured me I am not the only one who thought maybe cocoa and cacao were the same thing, just spelled differently. I confessed that for all the chocolate I’ve consumed in my life, I’ve never been sure of cacao’s proper pronunciation. Thanks to Whitney, I now know. It’s kuh-KOW.

Anyway, while I’m not going to give away all the fantastical aspects of “Chocolate: The Exhibition” – hopefully enticing you, Dear Reader, to go experience the exhibition firsthand – I will divulge this much: As you step through the doors of what appears to be a European chocolate shop, you will suddenly find yourself standing beneath a life-size cacao tree in the middle of a Mesoamerican rainforest where you will learn about the tree’s unusual anatomy and the plethora of products that come from a single cacao bean.

The exhibition invites you to spend some time in an ancient Maya temple and learn how Maya built religious and royal ceremonies around a frothy, bitter drink made from ground cacao seeds. And you are welcome to play the part of an Aztec tradesperson bartering cacao seeds for goods.

“Cacao pods from the cacao tree are pretty large – about the size of a football,” Whitney said. “And inside are the bitter cacao seeds surrounded by a bunch of whitish, sweet pulp. Monkeys and other animals eat the pulp and spit out the seeds. There are about 30 to 50 seeds in each cacao pod – enough to make about seven bars of milk chocolate.”

Mmmm. Seven bars of milk chocolate. Be still my heart.


A Bite of Chocolate’s History

Did you know that Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés’ historic conquest of the Aztecs chartered chocolate’s path across the Atlantic to Spain, which kept chocolate a secret for decades?

“Everything came to a head when Cortés and his men, in 1521, conquered the Aztecs using guns and disease against the native populations, and they took chocolate back with them to Spain.” The Europeans eventually had the wild idea to add sugar to chocolate and, well, that was clearly a game changer.

“At some point, Europeans added sugar, and we got the sweet chocolate that we have today,” Whitney said. “Chocolate houses then were the Starbucks of today. That’s where people talked about issues while enjoying chocolate. Europeans invented special silver and porcelain saucers to keep chocolate off people’s fine clothes.”

Speaking of Starbucks, it’s where I am writing this story while slurping down a chocolatey Triple Mocha Frappuccino Grande from a plastic cup. Obviously, I’m not worried about dripping chocolate on my fine clothes. After chatting with Whitney about all things chocolate, however, I can’t help but contemplate the swirls of sweet chocolate syrup tickling my taste buds.

“When chocolate became sweet, the demand for sugar cane went up, and both sugar and cacao were harvested using enslaved labor,” Whitney told me. “So, slavery is part of chocolate’s history.” Although slavery was abolished in all countries by 1888, poor work conditions in the chocolate industry continued until the 1900s. That’s when, thank goodness, chocolate makers like Cadbury began speaking up, advocating that all their confectionary cronies pledge to not use ingredients harvested in substandard working conditions. It’s important to note that some cacao plantations in West Africa still use enslaved labor today, though the chocolate industry is making a serious effort to investigate and stop that practice.

“Chocolate: The Exhibition” also looks at the impact the Industrial Revolution had on the manufacturing of chocolate and the making of cocoa powder, resulting in less chocolate needed per bar, making chocolate more affordable and not just a luxury for the rich and powerful.

The exhibition also offers information about modern day growing and harvesting of cacao. “It’s still an intense process where machetes are used to cut down cacao pods,” Whitney noted. “Cacao thrives best in the understory of a rainforest – the layer closest to the ground – so when everything is cut down and the cacao trees don’t have the shade, they are more vulnerable to disease, which can wipe out entire ecosystems.” However, Whitney told me, some chocolate brands these days certify their products are rainforest friendly or that they only buy from plantations that grow cacao in the shade using environmentally friendly methods. And some chocolate manufacturers are committed to using free-trade chocolate only.


“And Above All, Think Chocolate” ~ Betty Crocker

Random observation: Have you ever noticed there are no recipes that call for using leftover chocolate? Coincidence? I think not.

At any rate, it just so happens that “Chocolate: The Exhibition” concludes with a fantastic shop where you can purchase items guaranteed to satisfy the cravings stirred by everything you just learned about chocolate while enjoying the exhibition.

Bonbon Appétit!

Exhibition hours run in tandem with Cincinnati Museum Center’s regular operating hours – Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. There are also chocolate-related gallery activities and chocolate tastings that run concurrently with the exhibition. Ticket prices are Adult, $14; Senior, $12; Child, $10; Member Adult, $7; and Member Child, free.

“This exhibition has traveled throughout the United States and Canada,” Whitney said. “I am so excited to have it in Cincinnati!”

May I just say, Whitney, on behalf of all area chocolate lovers, so are we! 


Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal is located at 1301 Western Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45203. For more information about the museum center and “Chocolate: The Exhibition,” visit