My wife suggested — okay, urged — that I take a "real vacation," meaning: don't think about the column, the blog, or anything else related to work for a protracted period of time. Say two weeks. Since she is typically right about everything, I am taking her advice. But, having done this blog for nearly a decade, every goddamn day, and with a book based on it just coming out now, and wanting to honor the implicit promise of its name, I made preparations, and am leaving you with visits to a dozen disparate places, starting with the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota, plucked from my unpublished and probably at this point unpublishable travel memoir, "The Quest for Pie," written a dozen years ago about a 2009 trip out West with my boys, then 12 and 13.
Feel free to comment, though it might be awhile before I get a chance to vet and post those comments. Thank you for your patience.
The Spam Museum is flashy, colorful, new — a gem of the museum-crafter's art — with George Segal-like white plaster figures recreating key moments in Hormel history, a faux butcher shop and lots of interactive displays that challenge visitors to fill and label Spam cans or compete as contestants on the set of a Spam TV trivia quiz show.
We eagerly took part, testing our skill against timers and each other. The keys to a good corporate museum are honesty, humility and humor — The Three Hs — and the Spam Museum nails all three. Though “Spam" is a contraction of "Spiced Ham," I expected them to soft peddle the killing pigs part of their operation.
But there is no groveling to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; the doors to the theater are designed to look like pig snouts, and a glass case displays a “hog splitter” from a 1940s killing floor, a brutal cleaver that could have been lifted from a slasher movie. The employee magazine on display is titled “Squeal.”
Candor is a sign of character in a company, because the weak-minded, knee-jerk approach would have been to whitewash the museum of anything but a few cartoon pigs with curlicue tails. As far as humility, well, I've never been to a corporate museum that says so many unenthusiastic things about its own product, such as “I’d rather eat Spam than bugs,” uttered by a life-size video of a fatigue-clad soldier (Spam, it seems, practically won the Second World War for the Allies. “Spam played a critical role during World War II” visitors are told).
Or “It’s not steak, but it’s good meat and fills you up” and, of course, the exasperated blurt of “I don't like Spam!” in the famous Monty Python sketch, with Viking chanting “Spam Spam Spam Spam” in a café offering more Spam items than even the menu at Johnny’s Spam-o-Rama.
The Monty Python display — they re-create the cafe set from the sketch — suffers a common corporate museum lapse, one also seen at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, where exhibit design trumps the antique notion that people ought to learn things at museums. The Spam Museum shows the Monty Python sketch on a monitor, but without any background or explanation — a true oversight, given that the skit is the source of the not-insignificant Internet term for unwanted bulk commercial email.
Were it my museum, I'd assign a staffer to spend an hour reading over the many minutely-detailed histories of Monty Python to find little background about how the Spam sketch came to be, perhaps making the obvious connection to the early 1960s black-and-white commercial playing in the next room at the museum, whose chant of “Spam Spam Spam” is echoed by the Vikings in the Python routine.
“I wish it were more factual,” Kent agreed, as we wandered together. Ross has a habit of reading every word of every display in a museum, so he tends to lag behind. Every so often I would drift backward, to find him standing alone, stock still, hand on his mouth, studying a placard Kent and I had breezed past. We were nearly alone; there were hardly any other visitors.
After an hour crawling around the Spam museum — playing its mock TV game show, pressing the buttons, working as fast as possible at a pretend Spam canning line — we were shunted into the enormous gift shop, where we pawed over Spam sweatshirts and Spam shot glasses. Kent selected a bright yellow and blue Spam foam football. I bought four cans of Spam; two regular and two exotic flavors: garlic and “Hot & Spicy.” I figured they’d come in handy on hikes.