Digging Soil Science with an Online Soil Exhibit

Online and across the U.S. and Canada, soil displays unearth fun facts.

By Marilyn Cummins | Photos By Boston Productions Inc.

Do you know your state soil? Or the soils most unique to your province? With the advent of virtual soil collections and exhibits, a world of soil knowledge can be only a click away. For example, the state-soil interactive online billboard of postcards pictured above is based on the former “Dig It! The Secrets of Soil” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Produced with the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) as founding sponsor, “Dig It!” is one of several physical soil exhibits in North America that is also on the web.

When you visit, each state or U.S. territory’s virtual postcard flips to give a quick rundown on a soil deemed special to that area, with links for more information. For example, behind the Iowa windmill postcard are facts about the fertile official state soil called Tama. A quarter of Georgia’s prime farmland is made up of Tifton, its official soil that grows its famous peaches and supports a unique longleaf pine ecosystem. California has dubbed the Great Central Valley’s San Joaquin soil—some of the world’s most productive farmland when irrigated—as its state soil.

The state soil postcards are based on the time-honored way of preserving and studying soil types: soil monoliths—tall, slim blocks of soil displayed as they appear in nature—familiar to soil-science students and many state-fair attendees. They’re heavy, big and usually quite stationary, which is why some of the biggest sets of monoliths have been turned into virtual displays that anyone can see and study online.

In Canada, the country’s second-largest grouping of collected soils has been digitized and made available online as the Virtual Soil Monolith Collection at the University of British Columbia ( It is based on the 197 display models on-site at UBC in Vancouver, and offers learning units about soils in general and by soil classification. To see the largest collection in Canada, you’d need to visit the University of Alberta in Edmonton to access the nearly 300 monoliths displayed in its museum collection.

Before becoming virtual, the U.S. state soil monoliths and other parts of the Smithsonian “Dig It!” exhibit traveled the country after leaving Washington, D.C. They now have a permanent home in the 5,000-square-foot GROW Pavilion and Gallery devoted to agriculture at the St. Louis Science Center (free admission). The original “Dig It!” exhibit still is available on the web at; don’t miss the curator-led tour video that shows the amazing monolith array and more.