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February 19, 2012

A-maize-ing history: Exhibit engages, teaches consumers about corn’s beginnings, uses

Exhibit engages, teaches consumers about corn’s beginnings, uses

INDIANAPOLIS — Did you know that there are chiefly two types of corn? Or that 95 percent of corn farms in the U.S. are family farms? Even the cosmetics you put on, the poster paints you use and the cereal you eat is commonly made from corn.

These fun facts are just part of the groundbreaking exhibit, “Amazing Maize: The Science, Culture and History of Corn,” currently available at the Indiana State Museum in downtown Indianapolis. The exhibit is a colorful, information-loaded, interactive opportunity for people of all ages to learn about the history, uses and technology encompassing that typically yellow, grown as an “ear,” and sometimes sweet substance called corn.

Occupying 5,000 square feet, this exhibit began Sept. 24, 2010, and is open until January 2013. Plans are being made for a smaller exhibit to travel nationally.

“This exhibit highlights corn as the most important plant breeding achievement of all time,” said Antonio Galindez, president and CEO of Dow AgroSciences, one of the exhibit’s national sponsors. “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.”

“Amazing Maize” is sponsored nationally by Dow AgroSciences LLC, Ford Motor Company, Case IH and National Starch LLC.

Local sponsors are the Indiana Corn Marketing Council and Indiana Farm Bureau, Inc. Brock is a supporting sponsor.

Divided into six walk-through sections, the exhibit is full of videos and hands-on activities that quickly engage kids and adults of all ages.

Why corn?

Every person who eats is a part of agriculture, and corn is an integral part of our daily diet and living experience. Whether you sidle through the exhibit individually or are bringing a class on a field trip, you’ll learn it takes 25 corn plants a day to support the average American’s way of life. Just inside the exhibit’s entryway you’ll find the first of several kiosks explaining corn uses, both edible and non-edible. You may be surprised to read corn is grown in all 50 states, Canada, Central and South America, and abroad. We eat corn, we drink it through sweeteners and high fructose corn syrup in our beverages, and it puts the candy shell on our M&Ms, according to a museum exhibit fact sheet.

But did you know that plastic garbage bags, fabrics, fuel, and packing peanuts are value-added products of corn? An eye-catching visual aid, a seven-foot high clump of corn stalks decorated like a Christmas tree sports a conglomeration of products illustrating just how many of our everyday items started out in a corn field.

Newer uses of corn, including ethanol fuel, are showcased.. A variety of Ford automobile components made from corn, along with a simulation of a corn starch dust explosion sparks visitors’ imagination.

Corn evolution

Corn’s origins trace back to south-central Mexico. It was there, roughly 10,000 years ago, that humans first began to select plants for desirable characteristics. A very productive and adaptable plant, now grown in almost every farming region on the planet, is the result.

This part of the exhibit includes a video showing how corn’s domestication took place through the years.

Ingenious corn growers

Throughout history, corn was important to people’s way of life, with even the Mayans worshipping it as a god. The ingenuity continued with Native Americans who created the five types of corn kernels we still have today. The Hopi, Hidatsa and Iroquois Indian tribes featured in the exhibit saved seeds to select for certain traits, much like modern day corn geneticists and research companies.

Guests can sneak a peek at a replica of a Hidatsa Buffalo Bird Woman’s corn storage pit and they can test their muscles as they learn to turn corn into flour or meal with a wooden corn pounder.

Corn goes global

Christopher Columbus “discovered” corn on his second voyage to the New World and took it with him back to Europe. A lighted map shows visitors how corn spread from the Americas to the rest of the world  quickly within 150 years.

Corn became and still is a crucial crop for Africa, today comprising as much as 90 percent of some Africans’ diets.

Corn’s U.S. track features the country’s first professor of agronomy, P.G. Holden, and his creation of the “corn gospel trains,” one of the earliest forms of agricultural extension programming. A favorite exhibit rest stop is hopping on the train and listening to the famous “corn evangelist” share his corn secrets.

Hybrid corn revolution

Crossing the parent lines of corn to create highly-productive hybrid seeds took hold in the 1930s. As America prepared for World War II, global demand for food and farm mechanization increased. The advent of tractors increased productivity and eventually technology. A great photo opportunity awaits those who sit in a Case IH combine simulator equipped with Global Positioning Satellite mapping capability. An antique Farmall tractor also sits against a mural of field corn.

A Chicago Board of Trade digital stream flashes through a commodity and production wall display.

GMOs explained

Those interested in genetically modified organisms will learn how and why more than 80 percent of the field corn now grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered. The exhibit explains scientists’ understanding of DNA led to the introduction of pest-resistant Bt corn in 1995 and later to herbicide-resistant corn. Kiosks explain how corn varieties undergo rigorous testing before they can come to market.

The gardeners in your group will see a replica of a high-tech greenhouse. Informative plaques detail plants grown in tightly-controlled tests in such greenhouses help farmers grow more corn on less land with fewer resources to feed and fuel the world.

The immensity of the exhibit and the collaboration needed to pull it off took several years, including traveling around the world to gain artifacts. Museum visitors have only to make a one-tank trip to the Hoosier capital to learn how corn impacts virtually every aspect of our daily lives.

For more information on “Amazing Maize” and the Indiana State Museum, call (317) 232-1637 or visit www.indianamuseum.org.

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