Obama Foods: Yes We Can (Save Those Wrappers)

Back in 2015, the Preservation Department at the Libraries curated an exhibit called “Beyond the Book: The Changing Nature of Library Collections,” which highlighted some of the Library’s rare and interesting objects that have received conservation attention in the past few years. In celebration of #TreatsInTheLibrary, we’re revisiting a post that originally appeared on the Preservation Department’s former blog, which was also titled, appropriately enough, Beyond the Book.

By Susan Russick, Special Collections Conservator

Obama Lollipops_bt07

Lollipops with wrappers featuring Barak Obama. Kenafric Industries Ltd., Kenya, 2010.

Nations across Africa celebrated Barack Obama’s candidacy for the U.S. presidency with a profusion of commemorative paraphernalia, from T-shirts to comic books to cookies.  The Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies began collecting such items in 2007, with a resulting collection of over 500 objects from 34 countries.

A variety of edible ephemera such as lollipops, biscuits, chewing gum, water, beer, and whiskey was included. These materials present a unique storage challenge, since food in collection areas can attract pests and liquids can spill. Some of the materials, like the water and whiskey bottles, were drained at the time of collection, so no decision was needed.

 

Water and other liquids can attract pests, allow mold growth or spill in storage.

Water and other liquids can attract pests, allow mold growth or spill in storage.

Because of risks to the rest of the collection, the curators determined that the value of the items was in the packaging, not the food itself. Conservators removed the food, cleaned the packaging materials, and filled the wrappers with archival foam in an effort to replicate the look of the original items, providing a more authentic understanding of the object and its cultural context.

While the wrappers publicized Obama, none of the food inside appeared to be specially shaped or manufactured. Some samples did not survive the suitcase ride between Africa and Evanston, Illinois intact. Obama Biscuits, United Biscuits Ltd., Ghana, 2010.

While the wrappers publicized Obama, none of the food inside appeared to be specially shaped or manufactured. Some samples did not survive the suitcase ride between Africa and Evanston, Illinois intact. Obama Biscuits, United Biscuits Ltd., Ghana, 2010.

 

Cookie sized pieces of Volara® foam were inserted into the wrappers to simulate the missing food.

Cookie sized pieces of Volara® foam were inserted into the wrappers to simulate the missing food.

While this collection was featured in a 2010-2011 exhibit called “Africa Embracing Obama” most materials have never been exhibited. Additional Obamarama has been acquired since that time thanks to the enthusiastic support of many students, faculty, and friends who have enjoyed scoping out the local markets on trips to Africa. And who but the library would consider an empty whiskey bottle a great gift?