Soil exhibition inspires

With an estimated 2 million visitors and 4.3 million hits on the interactive website, “Dig It! The Secrets of Soil” demonstrates the ability of inspiration to channel interest into an exciting, but sometimes confusing science. The lessons of “Dig It!” are now available to inspire the next steps in soil education.

Inspiration, rather than teaching, guided the design of “Dig It! The Secrets of Soil,” an eighteen month exhibit in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC from July 19, 2008 through January 10, 2010. In exploring new ways of bringing soil education to the public, the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) learned more about itself as an organization and how it might increase its role educating the world about the importance of soils.

Two new articles in the May/June 2010 issue of the Soil Science Society of America Journal look back on the challenges, impact, and lessons the Soil Science Society of America learned from bringing an often misunderstood and underrepresented science to a museum that sees over six million visitors a year. “Dig it!” encourages non-traditional soil education techniques, increased public outreach, and new partnerships.

“It is not enough for the general public to understand that soils are important they must be inspired by soils as living, fascinating, and even beautiful natural bodies. We attempted to achieve this goal by adopting an ecosystem context for presenting soil science and consequently taking the emphasis off of presenting agriculture as the main reason people should care about the topic. We presented soil science in the broadest context possible, addressing phenomena ranging from local to regional to global in scale. We connected soils to culture, presenting the widest possible variety of everyday objects derived from soils. We avoided the temptation to present the full richness of soil science in favor of a few basic concepts. Finally, we were not afraid to have fun and take risks by developing cartoons, movies, and art objects to communicate the topic,” wrote authors J. Patrick Megonigal, Barbara Stauffer, Siobhan Starrs, Andrew Pekarik, Patrick Drohan, and John Havlin.

To that end, the “Dig It!” design team adopted a non-linear, ecosystem approach to the exhibit, looking to tap into people’s emotions rather than bombard them with facts, and presented soils beyond an urban/agricultural context. “People tend to associate the word soil with farms, as if soils stop at the edges of cities, forests, wetlands, and other ecosystems,” say the authors.

Rather than teach people technical soil knowledge, the plans for “Dig it!” was to inspire people to change their preconceived notions about soil. Exploring a few soils principles, such as “soils are living, varied, changing, and difficult to recover” allowed the exhibit designers to focus on creative ways to present the material.

While officially an eight year project, SSSA had been in contact with the Smithsonian to develop a soil science display since 1994. What started as a display of soil monoliths representing soils from every state and territory eventually expanded to a comprehensive soils education display. In 2001, SSSA took the first steps to create a temporary exhibition at the National Museum of Natural History that could also become a traveling exhibition. SSSA established several committees and workshops to develop and steer the project in cooperation with the Smithsonian.

The soils exhibition was designed by the Smithsonian staff, with the science content distilled from two workshops sponsored by the Soil Science Society of America. A soil monolith collection from every state and territory allowed visitors a personal connection to see their home soil, as well as a visual indicator of the variety of soils. Multimedia presentations included videos about how soils are “made,” tubes demonstrating water movement through soils, and a greenhouse gas calculator game.

The success of “Dig It!” depends on the reactions of museum visitors. According to the authors of the article, people found it unexpected and interesting, drawn in by the displays and then encouraged to explore. The wide range of experiences, in the form of objects, photos, interactive devices, videos, models, and art gave “Dig It” a distinguishing characteristic from the other larger exhibitions.

The exhibition was a learning experience for SSSA as well, according to the authors Patrick J. Drohan, John L. Havlin, J. Patrick Megonigal, and H.H. Cheng, who wrote, “We believe that 'Dig It!' is potentially the dawning of a new era for soil science and SSSA. As the nation’s scientific body of soil scientists helping to protect one of the most important natural resources on the planet, we have to have a loud, proactive voice in every realm of soil knowledge and its communication. 'Dig It!' has helped transform SSSA by showing its members how a scientific society can actively engage in public education, and the value of doing so.”

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