Museum shows interchange of foods of two hemispheres


November 17, 1991|By Lynn Williams

AT THE SMITHSONIAN, THE CORN is even higher than an elephant's eye.

The famous stuffed African bush elephant, whose huge bulk presides over the rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, is no longer its main focus of attention. Positioned behind the beast, but looming above it, is a stately columned portal in vivid shades of red, yellow and blue, with a revolving globe set in its curvy Spanish-style lintel. It's a stunner -- especially when one notices that the portal's colorful face, with its zigzag and checkerboard patterns, has been executed in ears of corn.

This mammoth construction is the gateway to "Seeds of Change," an exhibition mounted by the museum in commemoration of next year's 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's world-shaping voyage to the Americas. It will be on view through April 1, 1993.

But "Seeds of Change" tells the Columbus story with a difference, according to Carolyn Margolis, the museum's assistant director of quincentenary programs. When Robert McC. Adams, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, initiated the program in 1987, he made it clear that he wasn't interested in the conventional biographical approach to Columbus, whether lauded or (in "politically correct" fashion) debunked him. What he wanted, instead, was a historic overview of the ramifications of the collision between two very different cultures.

"We're a natural history museum," Ms. Margolis points out. "It never occurred to us to look at Columbus the man. That's not our reason for being. We wanted to look at what 1492 means to 1992, in terms of the people and the environment and the cultures we live in."

In other words, the exhibition wasn't to be "old world discovers new world," but an examination of how a truly "new world" is created when two old worlds come together.

The project's course was set when quincentenary program director Herman J. Viola met Henry Hobhouse, an English journalist and gentleman farmer who had produced a book called, yes, "Seeds of Change." The book was an examination of the influence of five plants that the author felt had changed the world: quinine, sugar, tea, cotton and the potato. Because of the book's natural history orientation, Dr. Viola felt that its central concept could be successfully retooled as a museum exhibition. Mr. Hobhouse agreed to serve as a consultant for the project.

"We sat down and decided to take the concept further. Not just five plants," Ms. Margolis explains. "We used 'seeds' metaphorically: five things that changed the 'old' and 'new' worlds."

After brainstorming with a number of scholars specializing in the Columbian exchange," the quincentenary team settled on its own five "seeds": sugar, corn, potatoes, disease and the horse. Funding was obtained from several sources, including Xerox, the Potato Board and the National Corn Growers Association, and after more than four years of research, design work and production, "Seeds of Change" opened to the public late last month.

Exhibition rooms are devoted to the history-making "seeds," as well as to the Aztec civilization and its conquest by the Spanish. Each room has a signature color that relates to its theme, and is furnished with artifacts from the Smithsonian's own collections and borrowings from other museums, as well as specially designed dioramas and installations.

The final segment interprets "seeds of change" in yet another way, focusing on the small but essential changes each of us can make in order to reverse the damage that's been done to the environment in these last 500 years of progress.

Much of the exhibition is devoted to something that every visitor can relate to -- food. But the chosen items are significant not only for their contribution to our diets but for their worldwide economic and ecological impact.

One installation, "Treasures of the New World," emphasizes the importance of culinary cross-fertilization. The room, decorated like a colonial Mexican house, includes cases filled with the precious metals the conquerors sought, both pre-Columbian artifacts and the crosses and jewelry such artifacts were melted down to create. Around the walls, though, are the true treasures: early botanicals of products found in the "garden" of the Americas -- a garden from which half the food crops now grown in the world would originate.

The section devoted to those "enduring seeds," corn and potatoes, is both serious and lighthearted, focusing on the plants' spiritual significance, their planting and harvesting, and the products they yield modern society, from cornflakes and Tater Tots to ethanol fuel and starch-based plastics. In a Claymation video, corn and potato, dressed like bluegrass pickers, carry on a musical Homer and Jethro-style conversation in which each claims to be top dog among plants.

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