If you visit the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., it is not unusual to see large crowds congregate around exhibits featuring dinosaurs, exotic animals, precious gems or ancient tribes.
It has been a pleasant surprise to museum staff, however, to see the overwhelming response to a somewhat uncharacteristic exhibit that opened in summer 2008. "Dig It! The Secrets of Soil" is designed for middle-school children, but the exhibit is also attracting considerable interest among adults and younger children. According to curator Pat Megonigal, an estimated 300,000 people viewed the exhibit during the first three months it was open.
"It is a powerful exhibit," Megonigal says. "People walk in without any idea of what to expect. They may think of soil merely as something they have to clean up or perhaps something they garden in. They believe it comes in two colors, red or brown.
"Instead, they are surprised to learn that it is a global living ecosystem, that it comes in a wide variety of colors and textures and of the many ways soils support their everyday lives," he says.
The exhibit takes up 5,000 sq. ft., making it one of the museum's largest temporary exhibits. Megonigal adds that it also is destined to become one of its largest traveling exhibits. After it closes in the nation's capital on Jan. 3, 2010, the exhibit will travel to different parts of the country.
"There is no charge to view the exhibit. It is self-led. We've included many rich images and several video presentations, including a six-minute movie," Megonigal says. "We wanted to have many opportunities for visitors to interact with the exhibit and have fun. Most of the text is fairly brief to keep the exhibit appealing to the school-age audience."
Volunteers are available all through the exhibit, with numerous activities, some of which allow visitors to actually touch soil.
Featured topics of the exhibit include how soils form and change; microorganisms that live in and sustain soils; unlocking the puzzle of soil
layers; ways to protect natural resources; and learning how people create healthy new soils and restore damaged soils.
Pass the knowledge. The "Dig It" concept was the brainchild of two scientists. Tom Leverman, a public affairs specialist at USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), had a collection of about 50 soil monoliths—slices of soil roughly 4' deep, 1' wide and a couple of inches thick. These had been on display at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 1999 for the 100th anniversary of the Soil Conservation Service, the predecessor of NRCS.
Afterward, Leverman needed a home for the monoliths. Meanwhile, Patrick Drohan, an assistant soils professor at the University of Maryland, visited the museum and wondered why soils—one-third of the Earth's surface—were not better represented. The two men approached Carolyn Margolis and Barbara Stauffer, the former and present directors of temporary exhibits at the Smithsonian, about the possibility of using the monoliths in an exhibit.
Although soils were not an obvious subject for an exhibit, the exhibit specialists were persuaded by the enthusiasm of the two scientists that the concept "had wheels."
That was in 2000. The museum staff spent the next seven years lining up support and funding from the scientific community and its allies. Drohan since moved to Pennsylvania State University. Leverman died in 2002.
Megonigal says the Soil Science Society of America provided much-needed momentum to get the project off the ground, and it is listed as the founding sponsor. A major boost came with a $1 million gift from the Fertilizer Institute's Nutrients for Life Foundation.
Megonigal, himself a soil scientist with a Ph.D from Duke University, says his personal goal is for people to walk out of this exhibit with a vastly different reaction to the word "soil."
"I want people to think of soil as a varied, living, breathing organism that is important to people and to the planet," he says. "I want them to appreciate that soil is more than dirt. It is as important to them as air and water."
For More Information: To get a more in-depth idea of what the "Dig It! The Secrets of Soil" exhibit looks like, you can visit http://soils.org/smithsonian.