May 15 through Sept. 12
Be sure to check the amazing assortment of Chocolate in Excavations, our museum store!
Chocolate – a unique tree in a lush tropical forest. A seed so precious it was used as money. A spicy drink and a sweet snack. A heavenly craving and a sublime pleasure. Chocolate is all this…and much more. This special exhibition from the Field Museum in Chicago will allow visitors to explore the relationship between human culture and this rainforest treasure. Chocolate, on view from May 15 through Sept. 12, will immerse visitors in a sweet experience, engage all their senses, and reveal facets of chocolate they may never have thought about before. The exhibition explores the plant, the products, the history and the culture of chocolate through the lenses of botany and ecology, anthropology and economics, conservation and popular culture.
Bon bons, hot fudge, frozen chocolate bars … most of us know chocolate today primarily as a candy or a sweet dessert. But it wasn’t always so. The ancient Maya of Central America knew it as a frothy, spicy drink, made from the seeds of the cacao tree and used in royal and religious ceremonies. How did humans first come to taste these bitter seeds, found deep in the pulp of a large fruit the size of a football?
No one recorded the event, but the Maya let the seeds ferment, dried them in the sun, roasted them, crushed them, added water and spices…and drank. This chocolate drink at first was consumed by both rich and poor. But because cacao grows only in the rainforest, it became a valuable article of trade, particularly with the Aztec who inhabited drier areas. The seeds served as a form of money, and the drink became a luxury for the elite, served in lavishly decorated vessels. When the first Europeans reached the Aztec capital, instead of gold they found treasure troves of cacao seeds.
Europeans sweetened chocolate with sugar and by the 19th century had transformed both into commodities, growing them on distant plantations using slave labor and importing them for drinking in Europe’s well-to-do homes and chocolate houses.
Rooted in the rainforest
The exhibition delves into the cacao tree itself (Theobroma cacao), its origin in the South American rainforest, and its cultivation today. A relatively small tree, cacao grows only in the tropics and, in the wild, is found in the shade of larger, canopy trees.
Its delicate flowers are unusual: they grow directly on the trunk and lower branches. Here, they are within easy reach of the tiny pollinating flies called midges that thrive in the decaying leaf debris at the base of the tree.
Cacao is now grown far from its South American origin, in West Africa, Indonesia and other tropical lands. But it struggles in unshaded plantations, and requires fertilizers and pesticides to survive. Such chemicals can harm both people and the environment. Today, farmers and scientists are working together to find ways to grow cacao profitably and sustainably. Protecting the rainforest in which cacao grows best also protects the genetic diversity of wild cacao.
Global commodity, cultural icon
Thanks to technological advances that made the mass production of chocolate possible, and to modern advertising, chocolate has become a part of the global market economy and cultures around the world. Mexicans use it as an offering in Day of the Dead celebrations, in the form of beans, beverage or mole sauce. Foil-wrapped chocolate coins are given to children as “Chanukah gelt.” Chocolate has a place in nearly every holiday celebration in the United States: heart-shaped boxes of chocolate for Valentine’s Day, chocolate bunnies for Easter, wrapped candies for trick-or-treaters at Halloween, and cups of hot cocoa to warm Christmas carolers.
The exhibition offers a wide scope of experience and discovery. Explore the transformation of an unusual rainforest plant into the world’s favorite treat in Chocolate.
Chocolate and its national tour were developed by The Field Museum, Chicago. This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.
Local media support is provided by Cox Media and The Oklahoman.