Sweden’s Disgusting Food Museum explores what our revulsions say about us

Much of the world finds root beer repellant.
Much of the world finds root beer repellant.
Image: AP Photo/Michael Stravato
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It’s not the fermented shark, it’s you.

At the Disgusting Food Museum in Malmo, Sweden, which opens on Oct. 29, foods like fermented horse milk, stinky tofu, jell-o salad, and licorice are not just on display to inspire eeeewwwws. According to founder Samuel West, the museum invites a larger conversation about why we eat the things we do, and what it means to be repelled by something another culture, or another individual, might treasure.

“Even though disgust is a universal, hardwired emotion, it’s still something we have to learn. The people around us who we grow up with, who form us, teach us what to be disgusted by,” West told Vox. “That’s what makes it culturally interesting.”

West is a bit of an expert when it comes to oddball museums that flip conventional thinking. His Museum of Failure, which opened in 2017, drew from his work as an organizational psychologist, cataloging misguided products, terrible marketing campaigns, and less-than-visionary leadership.

There has been some criticism of the Disgusting Food Museum as an exercise in othering—deeming the food of some cultures to be normal and delicious, and the aromas, flavors, and ingredients of others to be weird and off-putting. Just as the Museum of Failure does more than just poke fun at the idea of Hot Road, the Harley Davidson perfume (the larger purpose is to explore the relationship between failure and innovation), the Disgusting Food Museum paints a more complicated picture of why we eat certain things and push others away in revulsion.

The items features on the museum’s website fall into roughly three, often overlapping categories: unfamiliar creatures (bats, dog, insects) or parts (penis, intestines, heads); very strong flavors, textures, and aromas (durian, natto, root beer); and items that violate certain religious or moral beliefs (pork, meat, jell-o salad).

Disgust is about avoidance, and science theorizes that humans experience it to keep us safe from snakes and stinging insects and foods that could make us sick. The museum taps into a universal human fascination, akin to viewing a piece of the fatberg, or watching pimple popping videos on YouTube. Putting unfamiliar foods in a new context—a museum instead of the plate—and alongside foods that are also familiar, could help visitors override the revulsion, and move on to curiosity.

One of the main lines of inquiry West hopes to inspire is around meat, why we find certain animals—and animal kingdoms—acceptable and others revolting, and how the morality of factory-farmed meat and its environmental price affect our dietary choices. “If I were to create an exhibit called “Meat Is Bad, You Should Eat Insects Instead, Shame on You,” nothing would happen,” he told Vox. “It would have no effect whatsoever. But disgust is something we can all relate to. We’re fascinated by it; I’m fascinated by it.”