July 17, 2008

Smithsonian Debuts New Exhibit On Dirt

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington is debuting a new exhibit on, of all things, dirt.

This Saturday, the National Museum of Natural History will open the exhibit called, "Dig It", which will explore the mysterious and complex world of soil.

"We want people to walk away understanding that soils are living, living breathing bodies," said exhibit curator Patrick Megonigal, a soil ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland.

Megonigal wants patrons to realize that dirt is just as important as air or water: "One of the most important messages for me is that people get beyond thinking of soil as something in their garden, but think of it as the foundation of all the Earth's ecosystems."

The exhibits central theme is that most life on the planet depends on soil one way or another, yet there's plenty that people don't understand about the very ground they walk on.

"While the biggest environmental problem right now is climate change, just over the horizon is learning how to make agriculture sustainable," said David Montgomery, a soil geomorphologist at the University of Washington.

Montgomery said reinvesting in our soil is one of the biggest choicest we will have to make in the next 50 years.

"Soil is being eroded faster than it is being replaced. We usually take it for granted, it's just dirt, after all."

Montgomery added: "Soil is one of the basic bits of the foundation of life. Soils are created, destroyed and transformed. They can be used up just like any other resource."

Diana Wall, a soil ecologist at Colorado State University, said the chemical and physical properties of soil help clean and purify rainwater that passes through.

American researchers recognize 12 orders of soil, ranging from frozen tundra to deserts to volcanic. Look for more detail and the orders can be divided into 70,000 soil series, Megonigal explained.

"Air and water get more attention, but the necessities of life are like a recipe, you need all the ingredients, air, water and soil," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif.

After families come through this exhibit, added Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, "the kids will look at mud a whole lot different."

Some of the displays that the exhibit include:
- "At Home in the World of Soils," a gallery where people can learn about the connections between soil and culture. It includes a scale model of a suburban house lot that highlights soils in and around our homes.

  • A video features soils as the "secret ingredients" in thousands of everyday items including medicine, food, fiber, paint, cosmetics, and pottery.
  • An "Underneath it All" gallery includes a topographic model to illustrate the role of soils in residential, urban and agricultural areas.
  • Touchable soil samples provide close-up looks of two different urban soils found in Washington, D.C.
  • The global view is emphasized in "The Big Picture," including a world map and computer interactive stations that highlight global connections to soils.
  • "Get Soil Savvy!" explores the importance of soils in land management and conservation.
  • A detective-story video on decomposition in which soil scientists investigate a grisly pumpkin murder.
  • "Chef's Challenge" - a la "Iron Chef" - where soil chefs create very different soils from the same ingredients.

The exhibit will remain at the museum until Jan. 3, 2010 and then will go on tour to other museums around the country.

The Soil Science Society of America and the Nutrients for Life Foundation offered supporting development for the exhibit.


On the Net:

Exhibit site: http://forces.si.edu/soils

Natural History Museum: http://www.mnh.si.edu

Soil Science Society: http://www.soils.org

Nutrients for Life: http://www.nutrientsforlife.org