There’s a government agency that I’ve never heard of – I suspect there are many of those – called the Institute of Museum and Library Services, or IMLS.
In 2014 IMLS announced that there were 35,000 active museums in the U.S. I found higher and lower counts, so I decided to go with that one.
I’ve worked in two of those 35,000 – a fine arts museum and a science museum – which by no means makes me an expert on museums. Far from it.
But those eight years did give me some insights, and here’s one of the things I learned:
Many, and I suspect most, museums tend to take themselves very, very seriously.
You can tell by reading museum mission statements:
“…to inspire, educate, and cultivate curiosity through great works of art.”
“…to foster in its audiences a passion for understanding the world around them and a lifelong love of learning.”
“…to engage and inspire a diverse range of audiences by pursuing an innovative program of exhibitions, education, publications, and collections activities.”
No matter how many museum mission statements I read, I couldn’t find one that said its mission for visitors was to …
“…just have fun.”
Which has a lot do to with why a lot of people don’t go to museums.
Then I recently heard someone refer to a museum I’d never heard of, and thought, “I’ll bet that museum wants visitors to just have fun.”
Welcome to the…
And no – it is not a museum dedicated to those crappy unsolicited messages that show up in our email accounts that are supposed to go directly into a spam folder but all too often do not.
I’m talking about the SPAM Museum in Austin, MN:
Here’s Austin, MN:
And soon as I discovered this was for real, I wondered if the SPAM Museum might be a museum where visitors have fun.
Because…when you think of museum dedicated to SPAM, what can you do but laugh?
And entire museum dedicated to something that comes out of a can, looking like this?
A product that, during World War II, soldiers referred to as “ham that didn’t pass its physical” and, “meatloaf without basic training”?
According to various online sites, SPAM was introduced by George A. Hormel on July 5, 1937. Hormel had founded George A. Hormel & Company in Austin, MN in 1891, and its business was packaging and selling ham, sausage and other pork, chicken, beef, and lamb products to consumers.
But there was one meat item that didn’t sell well – pork shoulder. It was considered an undesirable byproduct of hog butchery, which left Hormel with a lot of unsellable pork shoulders and no profits from that part of the pig.
Consumers were already accustomed to canned meat – in 1926 the company introduced Hormel Flavor-Sealed Ham, America’s first canned ham, and added a canned chicken product line in 1928.
Then someone came up with the idea of taking those pesky pork shoulders and putting them in cans, too.
Who was that someone?
According to this article on eater.com:
It was Hormel’s son Jay who came up the idea of canned pork luncheon meat – likely being careful to not refer to the meat as pork “shoulder.” And then…
“According to current Spam brand manager Nicole Behne, there’s no one Hormel team member credited with inventing the final ingredient blend…”
That final ingredient blend, says eater.com, was pork shoulder, water, salt, sugar, and sodium nitrate (for coloring). That remained unchanged until 2009, when Hormel began adding potato starch to sop up the infamous gelatin “layer” that naturally forms when meat is cooked.
So SPAM was launched in 1937, and a few years later a terrible thing happened for the world, which would prove to be fortuitous for Hormel:
The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The U.S. declared war on Japan on December 8, Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. on December 11 and the U.S. declared war on Germany and Italy that same day. U.S. military were heading overseas, and that meant a lot of food had to go overseas as well.
Delivering fresh meat to war zones was pretty much impossible, but canned meat – now, that was doable. During World War II Spam (pictured) became a ubiquitous part of the U.S. soldier’s diet, frequently three times a day. Over 150 million pounds of SPAM were purchased by the military before the war’s end.
I would have thought that when the war ended, soldiers returning home would refuse to eat the stuff.
But a visit to HormelFoods.com suggested otherwise in this article:
“After the war, the troops reportedly brought their appreciation for the canned mean to the home front, and Spam ingrained itself in Americana.”
And that article linked to this article:
Many believe that SPAM stands for “spiced ham,” and indeed an early can says exactly that on the label:
But the “six things” article says otherwise:
“The Name is Still a Mystery
While many assume that Spam is short for ‘spiced ham,’ only a handful of people know its true origin – and they’re not telling…Other theories under the acronym category include ‘special processed American meat’ and ‘shoulders of pork and ham.’”
Whatever the true origin of the name “SPAM,” my favorite is the most recent acronym, seen in current SPAM commercials:
There’s so much online information about SPAM – including how many flavors of SPAM (15) – that I started going into SPAM overload. So I circled back around to my original premise:
Is the SPAM Museum in Austin, MN fun?
The Hormel Foods website assures us:
“The SPAM Museum is stuffed with interactive exhibits that bring the iconic history of the SPAM® Brand to life like you’ve never seen it before!”
“Go behind the scenes and behind the can for an experience adults and kids will savor…And best of all, admission is FREE!”
And free is fun but…what else will I find at the museum?
Well, the exhibits look cool:
And I can learn fun stuff including:
- In 1959 the one billionth can of SPAM Classic was produced.
- The first SPAM Museum opened in 1991, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Hormel Foods.
- In 1995 Hormel sponsored the #9 SPAM race car in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series:
- SPAM introduced the SIR CAN-A-LOT character in 2012, it’s first-ever spokes-character:
- As of 2021 Hormel has produced more than nine billion cans of Spam, sold in 44 countries.
- The SPAM Museum – no surprise here – has both an on-site and online gift shop, where you can find a veritable plethora of SPAM-related items like these:
And speaking of plethoras, while the SPAM Museum does not have a restaurant, the website has a more-than-a-lifetime supply of recipes:
That isn’t to say that you’ll starve while enjoying the SPAM Museum. Volunteer guides – known as Spambassadors – offer visitors small bits of Spam on a toothpick or pretzel stick, commonly known as Spamples:
I’m thinking this is a museum that does not take itself very, very seriously.
So, while I’ve yet to visit the SPAM Museum in Austin, MN in person, my conclusion is:
The SPAM Museum does look like fun.
But perhaps the most fun of all is the original SPAM premise:
That it all started close to a century ago when a bunch of folks at Hormel were sitting around wondering, “How the hell do we turn this unprofitable pig part…into money?”
And someone said, “Mix it up with water, salt, sugar, and sodium nitrate, cook it, and put it in a can! We’ll call it…we’ll call it…
“What should we call it?”
And a deep, commanding voice came from the heavens and intoned…
Update: ‘Tis the season…
I don’t know that anyone asked Hormel Foods to do this – I’m doubtful – but, says this article, in celebration of the holidays, Hormel has created a new SPAM product:
“The makers of the SPAM® Brand wanted to create a limited-edition seasonal variety that captures the magic, warm flavors and nostalgia we all crave during the holiday season. And with SPAM® Figgy Pudding, the brand did it all in one can.”
The November 21 article advises:
“The product launched last week, and is already sold out at Spam.com and Amazon. Your best bet now is Walmart.com, or you’ll have to resort to the secondary market (not making this up) on eBay, where prices are already double the list price.”
Walmart.com was selling SPAM Figgy Pudding for $9.98 – operative word: “was.” When I checked on November 23 and again this morning, they were “out of stock.”
And alas, it appears that eBay has run out of Figgy Pudding as well:
Here are some examples of what SPAM Figgy Pudding had been offered for on eBay on November 23:
Looks like we know who bought up all that Figgy Pudding to price gouge on eBay.
Looks like no SPAM Figgy Pudding for most of us this holiday season.