Discovery Park of America Opens Permanent Exhibit on Innovation in Agriculture

On Sat., Dec. 5, 2020, Discovery Park of America opened “AgriCulture: Innovating for Our Survival” in the museum and heritage park’s Simmons Bank Ag Center. Below is a Q ‘n’ A with Jennifer Wildes, Discovery Park’s senior director of collections and exhibits who led the team in creating the exhibit.

How do you describe Discovery Park?

Discovery Park is difficult to describe unless you have been here because it covers so many areas including science, military, technology, history, art, theater, transportation, space and more. It has content to appeal to visitors from 2 to 102. Although our mission to inspire children and adults to “see beyond” has remained the same since opening, we have refined it based on what we’ve experienced the last few years. Today, it means inspiration to learn, inspiration to grow and inspiration to consider new ideas. We want our guests to leave inspired to see beyond wherever they are in life, regardless of age or education.

How did an exhibit in innovation in agriculture come about?

The Tennessee Soybean Promotion Board noticed that, although we covered many topics, we did not include much about agriculture; ironic considering the 50 acres we sit on was previously a corn field, and we’re literally surrounded by agriculture. With their help, we pulled together focus groups of farmers and others who work in agriculture to learn more about what they would include in an exhibit. When we first began, we planned for a small exhibit possibly located in our Simmons Bank Ag Center where we had on display a collection of about 50 tractors. The more focus groups we had and the more we listened to those who work in that industry, the bigger our plans got. Of course, we knew the bigger and more elaborate the exhibit, the more it would cost to create, so we had to go down two tracks simultaneously. We had one team fundraising and another doing research and figuring out what stories we would tell. After the focus groups and research, we settled on the story of innovation in agriculture.

Are there other museums with exhibits like this?

There are many museums with exhibits that tell the story of how things grow, but we’ve not seen any focused exclusively on innovation, so this will be one of a kind.

Why is innovation in agriculture important?

As we discovered doing the early research—but those working in agriculture already know—by 2050, the global population is expected to reach close to ten billion, so our food supplies will be under far greater stress than today. We absolutely have to figure out how to create more with less. And the only way to do that is through innovation. We want our guests who tour the exhibit to walk away with a better understanding of how food, fuel and fiber get from the farm to their family. In a world where fiction and propaganda can be spread with the click of a mouse on a computer or the touch of a finger on a mobile device, bad information is plentiful out there. Our goal was to provide a source for accurate information relating to agriculture, and to do it in a fun and entertaining way.

Who worked on the exhibit?

We secured the services of an exhibit design firm, Solid Light, out of Louisville, and our two teams began taking the general ideas and information from the focus groups and creating this exhibit. Solid Light built most of the exhibit in Louisville and has had teams of installers here for much of the month of Nov. doing the installation. It’s been fun to see the exhibit go from brainstorming to a Word document to designs on a computer screen to a completed exhibit.

What will visitors see when they tour the exhibit?

“AgriCulture: Innovating for Our Survival” will tell the story of farming innovation in the past, present—and especially—future in a fun and interactive way. Visitors of all ages will gain an understanding of how food, fuel and fiber get from the farm to the family and the role technological, scientific and genetic innovation in agriculture plays in society and culture around the world. Our research showed us that, because so few people have ever even met a farmer in person, the stereotype of an older, male, Caucasian in overalls was all they knew. Old MacDonald was literally the only farmer they could identify. Of course, that isn’t the case, so the exhibit will also spotlight some of the men and women working in the field today. We want those who experience this exhibit, especially those who are exploring future careers, to understand all the facets jobs in agriculture can cover. We traveled across the region to farm shows and any place those who work in agriculture were gathered and collected portraits of more than 250 individuals. Their faces have been incorporated into the exhibit, as have some details on some of their careers.

How did the Discovery Park team get the exhibit funded?

We aimed high. Our plan was to create “a mind-blowing, myth-busting farming exhibit that will change the world.” In a true testament to how important others found this initiative, by the time we were done, we saw a million dollars donated from companies, organizations and individuals for the construction of this exhibit. As with our other fundraising efforts, we share our vision with others who may have a similar goal and invite them to join us.

What do you enjoy about working at Discovery Park? What makes your job rewarding?

I was inspired in so many ways after taking field trips to places similar to Discovery Park as a kid. Living in Memphis at the time, it was easy to find nearby educational experiences like that. This was not the case for this region before Discovery Park was built. It is so gratifying to know that the children (and adults) of our rural area now have somewhere close to home that offers the same type of inspirational experiences that I was able to have growing up. We brought the “big city” to them, and you can see it on their faces when they come through the door.

What is your favorite part of the exhibit?

It is so hard to choose! If I can only pick one, though, it would be the Case IH Magnum Tractor on loan from H&R Agri-Power and Case IH. It is a modern-day tractor, and guests can climb into its cab. It shows what the tractor innovations that began in the early 1900s and developed over the years have led up to for today’s world. I think our guests are going to be very surprised at how high-tech—and comfortable—the tractor has become.

How do you hope people are inspired after experiencing “AgriCulture: Innovating for Our Survival?”

I hope that our guests leave with the same experience that I encountered while working on this exhibit. I was ignorant of just how diverse agriculture is today — the workers, jobs, technology, and practices — and how vital it is for our future. My original assumption was completely turned inside out, and I developed a great appreciation for those working in agriculture. I do especially hope that our younger visitors are able to see the overwhelming career possibilities that exist in the world of agriculture, whether that is a farmer, a veterinarian, a scientist, a technology developer and everything in between.