‘Chocolate: The Exhibition’ brings bean history to New Mexico

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ON THE COVER: The Aztecs believed that by consuming cocoa they gained the wisdom and knowledge of Quetzalcoatl. (Courtesy of New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science)

Chocolate lovers rejoice.

The New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science opened “Chocolate: The Exhibit” on June 17.

It took more than two years for the exhibition to be operational.

“We were able to buy the exhibit from the Field Museum in Chicago because they were going to pull it,” says Abigail Eaton, executive director of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History Foundation. “It’s something we’ve wanted for a long time. The museum owns it and once it is created, it will travel the state.

After its run in Albuquerque, the exhibit will begin traveling the state, with its first stop in Hobbs at the Western Heritage Museum.

The exhibit traces chocolate from its origin in the rainforest to its status as a global economic commodity.

Visitors will be educated about the impact of chocolate on human cultures and tropical ecosystems through scenic elements, original videos, interactive pieces, rich images and graphics, and over 150 objects of interest that tell the ‘story.

The entrance to “Chocolate: The Exhibition” at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. (Courtesy of New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science)

Eaton says visitors to the museum will learn how the tiny cacao bean, native to the rainforest, began making an impact more than 2,000 years ago when the Mayans, who first cultivated and tasted the cocoa, have identified it as a drink of kings and queens.

Later, the Aztec culture valued the cocoa bean sacred as currency because they could not grow the bean in their climate. According to legend, the cocoa tree was brought by “a god” to the Aztecs.

During the Conquest period of the 1500s, the precious bean was introduced to Spain where chocolate meets sugar – a recipe that changed the world.

The museum will showcase educational findings about the explosion of manufacturing inventions that made mass production possible and chocolate accessible to everyone during the Industrial Revolution, the ultimate resource in the chocolate economy, and how hundreds of farmers depend on the harvest while protecting the rainforest and all its inhabitants.

Visitors and school children will learn the importance of this plant in many varied immersions by experiencing tactile elements, audio-visual environments, vivid images and the tantalizing scent of chocolate.

Mexicans and Mexican-Americans sometimes mix corn, rice, and other ingredients with their chocolate (as do the Mayans and Aztecs) to make a drink called atole. (Courtesy of New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science)

From a replica of a cacao tree with its seed pods to the complex rainforest ecosystem that supports the healthy growth of this remarkable plant.

“Visitors will be able to learn more about the myths and facts about chocolate’s health effects,” says Eaton. “Journey 2000 years to the present day where chocolate is enjoyed today through cooking, consumption and celebration.”

During the exhibition, visitors will see expert chocolatiers share their chocolate curiosities, explore the chemistry of chocolate, and mold chocolate fossils.

The museum is planning an extensive series of educational chocolate offerings. Look for adult nights, an engaging chocolate talk series, extra family days, exhibit demonstrations, hands-on classes, summer camp days and more.

“Our museum team explores the vast world of chocolate, including topics ranging from the history of chocolate to the use of chocolate as currency,” says Deb Novak, director of education at NMMNHS. “The programming will engage our scientific senses by teaching about the different types of chocolate, how they were used, and how, historically, chocolate was consumed as a drink before it was a bar.”

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