George Washington Carver Exhibition Walk Through
For Immediate Release
Contact: Nancy O'Shea
(312) 665-7100 (For Media Use Only)
Experience the Life, the Science, and the Enduring Legacy of George Washington Carver
Carver’s Mighty Vision
A modest pair of spectacles lets visitors know they’re about to get an intensely personal experience of a most extraordinary man. These are the eyeglasses Carver wore as he went about his daily work, ordinary glasses through which he carefully observed the world and focused on a mighty vision: to harness nature’s power for the benefit of those in need. A short video expands on this vision, giving visitors a preview of Carver’s achievements beyond the peanut products for which he’s so widely known.
From Slave to Scholar
Carver’s life, a journey from slavery to science, from obscurity to legend, was a series of challenges—physical, financial, social, and racial. Visitors will come to know the curiosity, the persistence, and the passion for education that carried Carver such great distances.
Kidnapped and orphaned when he was just a baby, young George was rescued by his owners, Moses and Susan Carver, who raised him. A diorama of Carver’s childhood home brings to life the woods he explored, the rocks he collected, and his “secret garden.” Also on display are handiworks he created under the tutelage of his foster mother, and a knife similar to the one Carver first saw in a dream... and miraculously found the following day. Visitors will hear the music Carver listened to and the hymns he sang.
Carver left this home at the age of thirteen in search of the education he could not get as a black child in that frontier town. A map charts his journey from Missouri to Kansas and on to Iowa, highlighting the racism and other obstacles he encountered and the many families, black and white, who helped him along the way.
At Simpson College in Iowa, Carver was the only black student on campus. There he pursued his first passion, painting, and took music classes as well. Though many of his art works were lost in a fire, some survived; visitors will see a painting and a drawing Carver made on his favorite subject, nature. Also on display are the guitar and typewriter that enabled him to earn money to cover his basic needs.
Carver loved his studies. But what he wanted most of all was to enter a field where he could succeed as a black man and do the greatest good for others. To pursue that dream, he transferred after one year at Simpson to Iowa State College at Ames, where he studied science and agriculture and eventually became the first black member of its faculty.
The People's Scientist
Carver held a strong belief that God had called him to do important things—not for academic science but for people. So when Booker T. Washington offered him a position at the all-black Tuskegee Institute, Carver willingly left behind the substantial resources of Iowa State.
Visitors will learn how Washington and his students built Tuskegee from the ground up, and will see some of the homemade bricks from which they built it. In that same spirit, they'll see some of Carver's early lab equipment, resourcefully cobbled together from junkyard scraps, along with materials from his early experiments.
On the way to Alabama Carver had seen the endless fields of scraggly cotton that for decades had been sucking the life out of Southern soil. He knew that measures such as crop rotation were key to the economic survival of Southern farmers; peanut, sweet potato, and cow pea plants represent some of his soil-enriching alternatives to cotton. His simply-written "bulletins," on subjects ranging from composting to home beautification to canning, were geared to people with little money and no formal education. Some of the most popular are on display in this section. And in an interesting juxtaposition, visitors will see the updated, high-tech version of these teaching tools: an entertaining video animation about the relationship between soil and plants.
Carver had great respect for nature. He believed it could give people everything they need—a belief that led him to a practice we tend to think of as very modern: organic gardening. Visitors will learn that Carver explored and worked with the entire natural system of water, soil, insects, and plants—and got astonishing results. Examples of today's organic products illustrate just how successful that approach has been.
The centerpiece of this section is a life-size reproduction of the Jesup wagon, a horse-drawn "movable school" that Carver designed to bring his ideas to farmers in their fields and homemakers in their homes. Visitors can explore the wagon and handle reproductions of the plant and product models he used in demonstrations—pigments and picture frames for home décor, soil samples as teaching tools, simple farm equipment, bulletins and recipes, sewing supplies, samples of seeds, plants, and livestock, and much more. The Jesup wagon programs were a huge success. In fact, "descendants" of that movable classroom are in use at The Field Museum today, in the outreach programs of our Harris loan boxes, Soil Adventure Mobile, and Renewable Energy Vehicle.
Carver knew that alternative crops such as peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soy beans could save the soil. But could they also save the people? Southern farmers typically thought of these plants as animal feed; few believed they could bring much income, much less revitalize Southern economy.
This section recreates the laboratory where Carver unleashed the power of his humble plants—for food and health products, for household items, and even for industry. Some of his lab equipment is here, including his peanut grinder, hydraulic press, scale and weights, and much more. A display lets visitors discover for themselves some of the hundreds of new uses—from buttermilk to bleach, automobile fuel to glue, shoe polish to shaving cream—that Carver created from three simple plants. Though he took out a few patents, his interest was not in money but in public good. His passionate testimony on the potential of peanuts moved Congress to pass a tariff protecting American peanut farmers.
By the 1930s, others were picking up on Carver's ideas—particularly the use of agricultural materials to make industrial products. This came to be called the Chemurgy Movement, and Carver was seen as its father. Photographs and letters document Carver's friendship with Henry Ford, another powerful chemurgy proponent, and their discussions of plant-based plastics and fuels. Though the petroleum industry overshadowed the chemurgy movement for decades, climate change and global conflicts over oil and other natural resources have made it increasingly critical today.
In a broader sense, though, people have always depended on plants for food, medicine, housing, and many other products. Visitors will see examples from The Field Museum's 12,000-specimen collection—one of the largest in the world—of "Economic Botany," the study of the relationship between people and plants.
The exhibition concludes with more about Carver's impact on the modern world. Visitors can see letters and listen to oral histories from people whose lives were touched by Carver or who were inspired by the example of his life. A highlight of this section is an audio recording, from a radio appearance, of Carver's own, uniquely high-pitched voice.
Another part of the final section is dedicated to "modern-day Carvers." Here visitors will explore contemporary research in bio-products, still an area of strength at Tuskegee and elsewhere. They'll learn about Tuskegee's Dr. Walter Hill, who is studying how to grow food (sweet potatoes and peanuts!) for long-term space missions, and about The Field Museum's Djaja Djendoel Soejarto, who seeks out the medicinal potential of rainforest plants. They'll see examples of today's bio-products, from biodegradable plastics and household cleaners to natural building materials and bio-fuels. And they'll leave with the knowledge that George Washington Carver's legacy becomes more important with each passing year.