When Emily Canosa (A.B. ’07, M.A. ’11) and Sarah Seiter (A.B. ’06, M.S. ’08) met at the Residential College (RC) in 2002, they connected right away over their interests in food, art, and the environment. Canosa was learning Japanese, making comics, and exploring sustainable living. Seiter, devoted to science, majored in biological anthropology with a minor in environmental science from the Program in the Environment (PitE.) They also both shared a belief that social change can come from unexpected places.
“We studied different things,” Canosa says, “but had these overlapping interests.” They’ve remained friends for nearly two decades and became business partners in 2019 when they founded Canosa and Seiter Partners, which offers freelance exhibit development for museums and gardens.
As a student, Canosa had sought a way to link her affinity for art with social justice and sustainability and, to her surprise, made those first connections in a history of art classroom.
“I thought that the history of art was for rich people,” Canosa says. “But that changed when I took a class from Rebecca Zurier and learned how much art has to do with social movements.” Canosa wrote her honors thesis on art and social change.
After graduation, Canosa traveled to Japan many times. She worked as a teacher, visited art galleries, and lived in a shipping container on a permaculture farm, where she learned about sustainable design and solar and wind power while studying companion planting, beneficial plants, and insects. She also started to research sustainable food movements in Tokyo through an environmental historian’s lens and fell in love with the humble daikon radish. After returning to the U.S. and earning a Masters in Japanese Studies from the Center for Japanese Studies in 2011, Canosa used her degrees to forge a career in farming and sustainability. She worked as a curatorial assistant at University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA), and then led U-M Student Life’s Sustainable Food Program. Now, Canosa serves as assistant director of LSA’s Sustainable Living Experience residential learning community.
After graduation Seiter found herself returning to questions about the ways humans affect the world. “I’ve always been interested in how evolution works and in how humans use resources,” Seiter says. “We have evolved to think more is more, but we need to start challenging that as we move forward.”
Seiter believes science museums can drive social equity and generate positive change, especially when they give visitors a sense of agency. After graduating with a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Seiter moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she has brought hands-on exhibits to area science museums that explore biology, climate change, and evolution. Now a Senior Science Writer at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, Seiter designs exhibits for school kids on field trips as well as curious members of the general public.
Image Courtesy of the United States Botanic Gardens
When Canosa saw a request for proposals for an agriculture exhibit at the United States Botanic Gardens she immediately thought of Seiter. Whoever was awarded the U.S. Botanic Gardens contract would have the opportunity to develop and write interpretive content for four garden spaces and two indoor, hands-on gallery spaces on the Botanic Gardens grounds on the National Mall.
“Emily emailed me and said, ‘This is the project,’” Seiter says.
Canosa and Seiter set to work imagining the exhibit, drawing on the areas of expertise and experiences that had guided their decade-long conversations.
When the U.S. Botanic Garden accepted their proposal and the pair were awarded the contract, Canosa and Seiter finally had their chance to grow these ideas together.
Canosa and Seiter invited people and organizations from around the world to contribute to the exhibit at the U.S. Botanic Gardens, which is titled “Cultivate: Growing Food in a Changing World.”
“We wanted to talk about all different kinds of stories involving people and growing food,” Canosa says, “From freeze-dried tofu in Japan to family memories.” They didn’t shy away from difficult food histories either, like those formed through colonization, slavery, and climate change. Canosa and Seiter designed garden beds with community partners and mapped the difficult journeys some foods had made through trade and colonization.
“Cultivate” is hands-on, thanks to the team’s focus on developing interactive exhibits. A climate exhibit invites visitors to pick up imitation foods that are weighted to correspond to a statistical database containing carbon footprints. For example, a seemingly small chunk of meat, Seiter says, generates a surprising 40 pounds of carbon dioxide. Another room invites visitors to marvel at how humans have been adapting crops for thousands of years, breaking down the agricultural technology of making citrus more tolerant of cold and highlighting innovative hydroponic techniques and other indoor growing technologies. Another space celebrates more compact food planting, with displays of balcony gardens and tiny kitchen herb gardens.
In one of the galleries, there are audio interviews with chefs and D.C. home cooks who tell stories and offer their culinary perspectives, sharing flavors and family recipes from their kitchens. Smell jars and writing prompts inspire visitors to share their own food memories. Chef and author Michael Twitty tells a story about the fish pepper, which traveled the world during the painful global history of colonization and slavery that Twitty now uses in his own cooking as a way to excavate and celebrate his African roots.
Canosa and Seiter expect the living plants associated with the exhibit to evolve many times over. “Plants have their own life history, not like a painting where you can just hang it—there’s lots of flexibility, so partners can move things in and out if the plants are not thriving.” Canosa says. “All the gardens in the exhibit will change.”
“Art is a tool for social change,” Canosa says. She wants the agricultural innovation and richly layered histories on display to inspire visitors. She hopes they leave feeling a sense of “urgent optimism,” empowered by all the ways that people are working to address climate change through agriculture, knowledge, and new ideas.
By understanding and innovating how plants grow, Seiter says, humans can better use agriculture to sustain and enrich life.
“And we should want to understand how plants grow,” Canosa adds, “because science and innovation drive agricultural advancement. It’s not this old-timey thing. It’s personal. Growing and sharing and preparing food plants are a huge part of our cultural identities. So there’s a lot of passion there, too.”
Seiter shared the story of Yao Zhou, who she describes as a “Sichuan pepper evangelist,” and who is a featured local cook in the exhibit. The Sichuan pepper, which is not actually a pepper but a fiery member of the citrus family, means something very special to Mr. Zhou, who imports the peppers from China. For the audio part of the exhibit, Zhou recorded an ode to the jolt the peppers deliver, the equivalent of “50 hertz of electricity.” Zhou even signs off on his emails with the word, “Tingly.” Perhaps surprisingly, Zhou does not work as a chef or a botanist. He’s an economist for the World Bank. But his everyday passion for the Sichuan pepper exemplifies how food culture touches all of us. And that kind of passion is contagious.