Dull as Dirt? Hardly. Soil Exhibit Rocks

Posted July 23, 2008 at 4:38pm

Everyone’s getting down and dirty at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

The museum is hosting a new 5,000-square-foot exhibit dedicated exclusively to soil. It opened last Saturday and will run through Jan. 3, 2010. Located on the museum’s second floor, “Dig It! The Secrets of Soil” explains how soil supports nearly every living being on Earth and should be treated as a precious natural resource like air and water.

“We want visitors to walk away understanding just how inseparable our lives are from the world below our feet,” said Patrick Megonigal, soil scientist for the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and lead curator of the exhibit. “We want them to recognize that soils are at the center of the global cycles of water and carbon and have an influence on climate and what things we eat.”

Patrick Drohan, an assistant professor at Penn State University in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, and the late Thomas Levermann of the Natural Resources Conservation Service separately proposed the soil exhibit in 2000.

Drohan was concerned that the natural history museum had exhibits on fossils, gems and minerals but nothing on soil. Levermann was looking for a new home for the 54 soil samples that were displayed on the National Mall in 1999 to honor the 100th anniversary of the Agriculture Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

After the idea was received enthusiastically, the museum began to raise money and build support in the scientific community, eventually winning support from the Soil Science Society of America, the Fertilizer Institute’s Nutrients for Life Foundation and the departments of Agriculture and Interior.

The exhibit will travel to 10 museums across the country after it closes here in 2010.

To make “Dig It!” enjoyable for all ages, the exhibition emphasizes images and interactive exhibits, using relatively little text.

“It is almost like poetry in its ability to communicate very important ideas with very little words,” Megonigal said.

Among the exhibition’s highlights is a three-minute video where two actors compete against each other in an Iron Chef-style competition to create the best soil. The chefs, “Pierre La Terre” (whose last name means “the earth” in French) and “Sandy Marsh” have 6,000 years to create a unique soil from sand and end up tying after they create two very different but equally useful soils.

The exhibit also features a six-minute film based on the popular television show CSI. Detectives use various properties of soil to uncover who is responsible for the “death” of Linus IV, a giant pumpkin.

Kimberly Morlen, a visitor from West Virginia, thought the CSI-like video was the highlight of the exhibit. “It was very informative and interactive,” she said.

Children were more impressed by the hands-on exhibits. At one, children can activate an infrared gas analyzer that measures the amount of carbon dioxide in soils from a tropical rain forest and a savannah. The machine moves and lights up, engaging many visitors.

Another exhibit features a large tumbler filled with sand, another filled with silt and another filled with clay. Mounted to a wheel, kids can spin the tumblers and watch liquid flow through the different soils.

A more seriously themed exhibit tackles the dangers of mismanaging soil, which can contribute to global warming and melt frozen soils, something that could cause an entire city to buckle.

For Chuck Keil, who was visiting the museum from Oregon with his wife and daughter, these displays were memorable.

“I enjoyed the exhibit about the effects we can have on soil,” Keil said. “It really hit home.”

Overall, the biggest crowd-pleaser was the “Home Earth” exhibit, a collection of 54 soil samples arranged according to visual contrast that were previously displayed on the National Mall. Representing the 50 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, the 54 soils were selected by each region for their unique properties or extensive use as grassland, forest or cropland.

“I did not know every state had its own state soil, said Marie Keil, daughter of Chuck Keil. “That was pretty cool.”

Dave Plunkett, who escaped his children to explore the exhibition on his own, also named the “Home Earth” exhibit as his favorite. “I’m from Ohio, so I wanted to see Ohio’s soil,” Plunkett said.

More than anything else, Megonigal said, he hoped exhibit-goers will leave “Dig It!” with a new appreciation for soil.

“Soils are cool, colorful, full of life, incredibly different from one another and they’re important,” Megonigal said. “We are hoping visitors will walk away thinking soils are fun.”

The National Museum of Natural History is located on the National Mall at 10th Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest. Admission is free and the museum is open 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily though Aug. 31 and 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. thereafter. For more information, visit www.mnh.si.edu.