By JO ANN HUSTIS
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — For visitors from all walks of life, a simulated corn bin entrapment exhibit is probably the biggest attention-getter in the “Amazing Maize” corn evolution display at the Indiana State Museum in downtown Indianapolis.
The display that demonstrates the strength needed to pull someone out of a grain bin entrapment situation “is wildly popular,” exhibit Curator Rod Stockwell noted.
“The grain bin rescue display has been extremely popular among non-agricultural people,” said Stockwell, who assisted the museum in designing and fabricating the Amazing Maize exhibit and entrapment simulation.
The simulation features a rope end projecting from a bin of shelled corn. The “victim” is at the other end of the rope, buried up over his head in grain and suffocating.
Visitors try to wrestle the “victim” to the surface by pulling and tugging on the rope. So many times the attempt is not successful, however, because the “rescuer” lacks the strength to overcome the body weight of the “victim.”
“We saw people at fairs and FFA conventions trying their ability (on similar exhibits),” Stockton said. “It’s the physical concept kind of thing. Each kid wants to see how much he or she can pull on the rope, so we knew the concept would work.
“Even non-agricultural people find grain bin rescue an interesting topic because it’s emotional – you’re dealing with a rescue situation and people don’t normally think of corn as dangerous. We were very pleased when the display was cited on the evaluations as one of the most popular activities.
“People actually took the time to write in and say they’d like to know how often this happens, how people are rescued and what can be done to prevent this.”
Visitors enter the corn maize individually, or in groups of 2-3. “Most have found that getting a feel for it and going through is the most effective way. There’s also a lot of sound from audio-visuals and interactives, so it’s hard to go in there and talk,” Stockton said.
The “Amazing Maize” exhibit tells the story of the science, history and culture of corn and its relationship to people. The exhibit is divided into six sections. Visitors begin their tour in the section that portrays the role of corn today and the fact everybody is touched by corn, whether they are in agriculture.
The products Americans use takes about 25 corn plants per day per person to support. This includes exports. The number was arrived at by taking all the corn acres in the nation and multiplying them by all the plants within, then dividing the sum by the number of citizens in the United States. Amazingly, there are more than 4,200 different uses for corn products today.
The history of corn
The second section is a timeline review of the 10,000-year history of the corn plant.
“The big idea behind the exhibit is that corn is the greatest plant-breeding achievement of all time,” Stockton said. “What ties the exhibit all together is looking at how humans have modified a wild plant to become the most productive domesticated plant today.”
The first corn was the outgrowth of a wild tropical grass plants that grew in the Balsas River Valley in the heart of Mexico, and would readily interbreed. The plant was bushy and the seed consisted of tiny hard kernels that did not look anything like today’s corn plants and kernels.
Because of a few genetic mutations, ancient man transformed the wild tropical grass into the modern-day corn plant, which is productive and adaptable. Today, corn plants grow in almost every farming region on Earth.
Corn was worshipped by the Mayans as a god long before Columbus introduced it to the rest of the world in the late 1490s. American Indians of long ago created the five types of corn kernels the world has today, by picking out and saving certain seeds by their traits.
The exhibit shows how the Hopi Indians grew blue corn by selection, and how Native Americans preserved corn for food by drying and grinding the kernels for later use. Visitors to this exhibit can use a wood corn pounder to try their hand at grinding corn kernels into flour.
An illuminated map in the third section shows the spread of corn from the Western nations to Europe in the late 15th and 16th centuries. Corn became an important new crop in Africa and remains a primary food source on that continent today. Corn consists of about 50 percent of some African diets.
Moving on, visitors can see how corn was at the root of the discovery of vitamins, and how an accidental cross of two different corn types produced yellow dent corn that won first prize at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Visitors may ride the “corn gospel train” of the late 1890s and hear ag professor P. G. Holden, the “corn evangelist,” tell about improving corn productivity. This was one of the earliest forms of today’s agricultural extension programming.
Another section shows the development of hybrid corn in the 1930s and its widespread use just before the outbreak of World War II in 1941. Also, farm tractors replaced horses to plow and plant, which increased productivity.
Two other exhibits that catch the eye include a replica of the “corn liquor” gins or distilleries popular in the southern and eastern United States, banned in Prohibition. The other exhibit is a mockup of a Case-IH grain combine for harvesting. The cab includes GPS to demonstrate how technology assists farmers today in raising food to help feed the world.
“Amazing Maize” is 5,500 square feet in size and open to the public for about 18 more months, to March 24, 2014. A smaller version will be designed next year for use as a traveling exhibit. It will probably be about 2,000-2,500 square feet in size, and physically be different from the current exhibit. Negotiations are under way as to the fate of the larger exhibit.
The museum’s evaluations show the interactives in the exhibit are highly appreciated, said Stockton, who also serves as the museum’s curator of ag industry and technology.