Smithsonian plows into farming history

May 28, 2013

Visitors to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. only get small glimpses of farming, such as a mural display of immigrant farmworkers planting crops in a 19th century California town. The museum once had an Agriculture Hall, but it was removed in 2006.

“It was a little tatty, a little worn out. The interpretation wasn’t the greatest. And for the nation’s museum, we really ought to do better,” said curator Peter Liebhold, who is chair of the museum’s Division of Work and Industry. “A group of farmers from Illinois came to us and they pointed out the fact that there was no Ag Hall and they thought that mistake should be rectified.”

The Smithsonian agreed and is now working on an 8,000-square-foot “American Enterprise” exhibition that will explore agriculture’s connection to finance, science and retail. Liebhold hopes the permanent exhibition, which will be devoted to the history of commerce and will open in 2015, will bring some much-needed love to farming, especially since less than 2 percent of Americans farm today.

“A lot of people live in cities and their sense of food is going to the refrigerator or to a restaurant,” Liebhold said. “But they’re interested. I think there’s a great desire to learn.”

Though Liebhold doesn’t have farm roots himself, he’s been traveling across the country to spend time with farmers and ranchers in their barns and tractor cabs. In one of the museum’s back rooms, he enthusiastically shows me an artifact he picked up on his travels: a battered “No-Till Saves Soil” sign from the '80s.

“This is why you never want to invite a curator onto your property,” Liebhold said. ”I was out in Illinois and Jim Rapp -- a big corn and bean farmer -- was showing me around. We went into his machine shed and there ... was this sign. You can see it’s clearly been up forever. And ‘No-Till’ is a really important concept.”

Besides highlighting innovations in farming through artifacts in the upcoming exhibition, Liebhold is also hoping farmers will share their passion for agriculture and food production by submitting their stories, photos and ephemera online. The museum’s already gotten 100 submissions since it started the online archive in March.

“For us this is a grand experiment. We’re not sure if it’s really going to work. It’s outside of our comfort zone, but it’s something that we should do,” he said.

The Smithsonian may be the best-known museum trying to put a fresh spin on farming. But it’s not the only one.

The National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame, in Bonner Springs, Kan., has way more than 8,000 square feet devoted to farming. Its sprawling grounds even include a recreated 1919 farm town and interactive exhibits on modern hog farming, beekeeping and how E-85 ethanol is made from corn.

Lifting the curtain back on food production and creating exhibitions with families in mind seems to be working, according to the National Ag Hall of Fame’s executive director Cathi Hahner.

“Our visitation has been going up over the last couple of years and that,” Hahner said. “Our event attendance has significantly increased.”

She is also hopeful of a side benefit in the Smithsonian’s exhibit.

“Obviously the Smithsonian is the mother of all museums and that. And so the fact that they are starting to talk about agriculture and that will start bringing people's awareness,” she said. “And they might then, as they visit other places and that, think ag museums might not be boring -- that they are science and technology as well as history.”

Besides museums like the Smithsonian showing interest in agriculture, she added that the Peterson brothers’ video parodies about farming were also making agriculture cool.

“What they've done with their parodies has really brought some excitement to agriculture and thinking about the young farmer a little differently today…” she said. “We hope to get them here sometime.”

Watch the latest video from the Peterson brothers, "From the Land of Kansas," which is set to the disco hit "Y.M.C.A." below.

And look out for the first installment of this year's Harvest Public Media's "My Farm Roots" series here.