Museum Exhibit Tells Story of Corn, Humankind
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (March 3, 2011) — The American cornfields that stretch on for miles have a story to tell. It’s a story that starts more than 10,000 years ago in the heart of Mexico and weaves itself inextricably throughout the history of humankind and into our modern-day lives.
Today, it takes 25 corn plants per person per day to support the American way of life. From sweeteners to plastics, fuel to textiles, corn is a part of everyday life for nearly all of us. Just how did humans come to be so dependent on corn? That’s the story the Indiana State Museum will tell in its exhibit, “Amazing Maize: The Science, History and Culture of Corn,” opening September 24, 2011.
“Amazing Maize” will take visitors on a journey through the centuries, beginning with corn’s unlikely origins in a small-eared bushy plant called teosinte. Visitors will trace the global spread of the crop following Christopher Columbus’ travels, including its social impact in Africa and Europe. Then they will return to the shores of America to explore the push to improve productivity and the rise of hybrid corn. The final stop on the journey will highlight the modern technology used to improve and grow this most important crop.
“This exhibit highlights corn as the most important plant breeding achievement of all time. Not only do visitors have a chance to explore how this amazing plant is tied to the origin of civilizations, it also gives them a chance to think about the critical issues facing us today. One of those challenges is growing enough food to feed the growing world population in a sustainable way,” said Antonio Galindez, President and CEO of Dow AgroSciences, a national sponsor of “Amazing Maize.”
This is a major exhibit for the Indiana State Museum, occupying 5,000 square feet. It will run for more than a year, and plans are in the works for a smaller exhibit that will travel nationally.
“We think it is an important role for our museum to address how agriculture has shaped our modern way of life,” said Tom King, President and CEO of the Indiana State Museum. “The story of corn is significant, and that is reflected in the exhibit’s size and scope.”
Divided into six sections, “Amazing Maize” will be full of videos and interactive pieces that will appeal to kids and adults alike. Visitors can test a specialty corn-based starch that keeps products dry, or try their hand at a wooden corn pounder that requires more than a little muscle. They can sit on a 1900s-era “corn gospel train” and listen to the nation’s first agronomy professor, P.G. Holden, reveal his secrets for increasing corn yields. Fast forward to the modern day and visitors can check out the latest in production technology from the seat of a Case IH combine simulator.
“Indiana corn farmers are excited to see the Indiana State Museum tell the story of a crop that has been so integral to not only our rural communities, but our state as a whole,” said Jane Ade Stevens, executive director of Indiana Corn Marketing Council, local presenting sponsor of Amazing Maize.
Those who visit “Amazing Maize” will never think of a field of corn as “ordinary” again. Instead, they will see the plant for what it truly is: the result of an extraordinary story about humankind and its ingenuity.
Background Information on “Amazing Maize: The Science, Culture and History of Corn”
“Amazing Maize: The Science, Culture and History of Corn” is a 5,000-square- foot exhibit at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis. It will open Sept. 24, 2011 and run for more than a year.
The exhibit consists of six sections, outlined below, that will take visitors on a journey from ancient times through today’s modern technology and innovative uses of corn. Whether experts in the field of agriculture or not, visitors are guaranteed to learn something new and develop a greater appreciation for the role corn has played in our lives throughout the centuries.
Did you know it takes 25 corn plants a day to support the average American’s way of life? As it turns out, corn is everywhere. Sure, we eat it. It flavors our beverages and puts the candy shell on our M&Ms®. But, corn also is an ingredient in thousands of products ranging from textiles to fuel and biodegradable plastics to packing peanuts.
Upon entering “Amazing Maize,” visitors will be greeted by a seven-foot-high pile of products that illustrates just how many of our everyday items started out in a corn field. Cereal, chips, cosmetics, kitty litter, poster paints and paper goods are all products commonly made from corn.
Newer uses of corn will also be showcased, including ethanol fuel and corn-based plastics and textiles. Visitors will see a variety of automobile components and textiles that Ford Motor Company, a national sponsor of the exhibit, makes from corn.
Visitors will get to have a little fun with some unique corn-based products like a certain type of modified corn starch that repels water, made by sponsor National Starch LLC. They will also will see a simulation of a corn starch dust explosion and be able to get their hands on each of the five main types of corn grown today.
Corn is not the simple plant it appears to be, and its origin has been the subject of much debate for decades. There is no known wild plant that grows like corn, so there is no obvious ancestor though scientists for years speculated that teosinte was the source.
The recent completion of the mapping of the corn genome in 2009 provided genetic proof that the bushy, tiny-eared teosinte plant is the unlikely forbearer of modern-day corn. This discovery has sent archaeologists back to the field to identify the earliest source of what has become one of the world’s most important plants. They have traced the domestication of teosinte to the Balsas River Valley in south central Mexico.
It was there that humans first began to select plants for desirable characteristics roughly 10,000 years ago. Although they had none of the scientific tools we have today, ancient humans created a plant that has proven very productive and adaptable, and now grows in almost every farming region on the planet.
As corn made its way around the world, new strains were developed through artificial and natural selection. Along the way, the plant acquired a huge genome, becoming so genetically complex that it has almost twice as many genes as humans. Because of its global travels with humans, corn is one of the few domesticated plants that is more genetically diverse than its wild ancestor. More than half of the plant’s genome is unused genetic coding that has accumulated over the past 10,000 years through viruses and other natural genetic modifiers.
This section of the exhibit will include an interactive piece that shows how domestication took place through the years, as well as a video from geneticist Dr. John Doebley, who first positively identified teosinte as the ancestor of today’s corn plant.
Long before Columbus introduced it to the world, corn began to permeate the way of life of the people who grew it. It was so important to the Mayans that they worshipped corn as a god.
As corn spread throughout the Americas, its evolution continued. Native Americans had created the five types of corn kernels we still have today before Europeans ever saw corn in 1493. Native American Indian tribes, including the Hopi, Hidatsa and Iroquois featured in the exhibit, saved seeds to select for certain traits. For example, the Hopi used selection to grow blue corn, casting aside multi-colored ears as undesirable.
Some tribes would grow dozens of different types of corn each year. They demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of how corn pollinates by staggering planting times and meticulously separating the fields of distinct varieties to preserve each variety’s different desirable traits.
Corn was an important food source for Native Americans, who preserved it by drying it and later grinding it for food. Visitors will be able to take a peek at a replica of Hidatsa Buffalo Bird Woman’s corn storage pit. Then they can test out their muscles as they learn firsthand just how much work it was to turn corn into flour or meal with a wooden corn pounder used by many Native American tribes.
Corn Goes Global
No one could have predicted how corn would change the world. It was on his second voyage that Christopher Columbus first saw corn. When he returned to Europe, he took his new discovery with him. Within 150 years corn could be found throughout the world, a remarkably fast spread in the late 15th and 16th centuries. A lighted map will show visitors how corn spread from the Americas to the rest of the globe so quickly.
In Africa, corn quickly became a very important new crop, providing an abundant food source. But along with the good came an unforeseen consequence. Ready access to food sparked population growth.
Soon, tribes competing for land and resources began to kidnap and sell one another off as slaves contributing to the slave trade. Today, corn is still a primary food source in Africa, comprising as much as 90 percent of some African people’s diets.
While the humble corn plant inadvertently contributed to the slave trade in Africa, it led to the discovery of vitamins in America in the early 1900s. Throughout Europe, corn was used primarily for animal feed, but there, as in America, the poorest people also ate it. The prominence of corn in their diets led to a fatal vitamin deficiency known as pellagra or “black tongue.” Research into the cause of pellagra ultimately led scientists to discover vitamins.
Corn traveled across America, too, moving west with the pioneers in the 19th century. Again, the plant proved adaptable to a wide range of climates and soils and more strains developed. Then mechanization began to change the way corn was grown and dramatically increase productivity.
In 1893, Reid’s Yellow Dent — a fortuitous but accidental cross of a northern flint corn and a southern dent corn — won first prize at the Chicago World’s Fair and launched corn’s heyday in America. Corn carnivals, corn festivals and 10-ear corn shows sprang up. Many got caught up in the excitement of growing show corn and prize ears went for as much as $500. Unfortunately, beautiful show corn didn’t always yield well when planted, a result of genetics that was not yet well understood.
At the same time, the land-grant university system was in its infancy and agricultural research was beginning in earnest. In 1896, P.G. Holden joined the faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as the first professor of agronomy in the United States.
Professor Holden and others realized that much could be done to improve corn’s productivity, and yet yields per acre had not increased significantly since the Civil War. He moved to Iowa State University where he launched the “corn gospel trains,” one of the earliest forms of agricultural extension programming. Visitors can hop on the train and listen to the famous “corn evangelist” share his corn secrets.
Hybrid Corn Revolution
Despite Holden’s efforts, corn yields still did not increase dramatically. Scientists in the 1910s had learned how to control the breeding of parent lines of corn that could be crossed to create highly- productive hybrid seeds, but the new seeds were too expensive for most farmers to consider. Many people opposed hybrid corn as unnatural and the old method of saving seed to be used the next year persisted. The use of hybrid corn seed did not take hold in the United States until the 1930s when hybrids proved their mettle during drought, often producing corn when no other seed would. Widespread adoption followed quickly, just in time to prepare America for World War II and the resulting global demand for food.
Mechanization also continued to increase during this time. Plow animals were replaced by tractors, increasing productivity to meet growing demands. Innovation in mechanization continues still today. Visitors will be impressed at the technology today’s farmers have at their fingertips when they step inside a simulator of a Case IH combine with its GPS mapping capability.
In the final section of the exhibit, visitors will explore how science has sped up the genetic transformation of corn and given rise to some controversy as well. Scientists’ understanding of DNA led to the introduction of pest-resistant Bt corn in 1995 and later to herbicide-resistant corn. More than 80 percent of the field corn now grown in the United States is genetically engineered. Thanks to its vast genome, there remains a lot of untapped genetic potential in any given corn plant. Prior to the completion of the mapping of the corn genome in 2009, that potential was difficult to reach without unintentionally changing other characteristics of a plant. Today, scientists use their knowledge of the plant’s genome to target the
exact placement of genetic traits. The process is highly regulated and very precise, and the products, including today’s genetically stacked corn varieties with their multiple modes of action, undergo rigorous testing before they can come to market.
Visitors will get a look at a replica of a high-tech greenhouse. Greenhouses have helped speed genetically-modified corn seed to market by providing ideal growing conditions year-round. They also give scientists the capability to do tightly-controlled tests of varieties’ response to various growing conditions, diseases and pests. New corn traits help farmers grow more corn on less land with fewer resources to feed and fuel the world.
Whether you know nothing about corn or everything about it, you’ll walk away from “Amazing Maize” with a whole new appreciation for one of our most important crops. Through the perspectives of science, history, and culture, this exhibit will show all of us that this ordinary plant has a most extraordinary story.
“Amazing Maize: The Science, History and Culture of Corn” is sponsored nationally by Dow AgroSciences LLC, Ford Motor Company, Case IH, and National Starch LLC. Regional sponsors are the Indiana Corn Marketing Council and Indiana Farm Bureau.