World Soil Museum showcases colourful collection of soil profiles

80 profiles from all over the world are on show in the new World Soil museum

From inky black steppe soils to layered pink and purple desert soils. From uniformly coloured dune sands to uneven stony riverbeds. No less  than eighty soil profiles from all over the world are displayed at the new World Soil Museum in Wageningen. The museum opened to the public on April 7 with a symposium on ‘Soils of the World’.

Yellow, orange, brown, beige, white: some soils obtain  their characteristic coloured layers as a result of their biota or soil life, others more as a consequence of their relief,  parent material, climate or human intervention. ‘We show the way in which such factors influence the soil’s characteristics’, says Stephan Mantel, researcher and head of the museum. ‘But what we also show is the key role soil diversity has to play in important issues such as food production, biodiversity and climate change.’

Biggest collection in the world

The museum houses the probably biggest collection of soil profiles in the world. It  is  part of ISRIC — World Soil Information, a foundation that  works closely with Wageningen UR and a range of international parthers such as FAO and JRC. Since it was founded in 1966, ISRIC has collected over 1000 soil profiles from some  eighty different countries. The profiles have been chemically analysed and prepared  as monoliths for display purposes. Alternatively, other soil museums across the world mainly present soil profiles from their specific region. Because of the unique international character of the ISRIC reference collection it was decided two years ago to house it in a new, purpose-built building.

‘It’s not easy to build up a world collection like this’, says Stephan Mantel. ‘The costs of excavation and  transport of the bulky soil crates easily runs into several thousands of euro’s. It also involves a lot of liaison and paperwork before a soil profile is cleared to leave the country.’

Dutch soils

Over the last two years the collection has been further expanded with the addition of twelve  profiles from The Netherlands, four desert soil profiles from Jordan, five from Morocco, six  from Chile and four from Ghana. Working together with the international forestry institute CIFOR in Indonesia, Stephan Mantel excavated two new Indonesian soil profiles, one from disturbed rainforest and the other under shifting cultivation. The partners are seeking to further sample two soil profiles -- from undisturbed rainforest and from an palm oil plantation -- so as to show the effects of deforestation and palm oil plantation on the underlying soil.  

Russian collection

The historical collection from Russia, known as the Glinka memorial collection, has  recently been expanded with ten newly excavated profiles. The original collection, which is  on display in the museum, was compiled by the Russian soil expert Konstantin Glinka. This famous soil scientist was invited to the first international soil congress in Washington in 1927 in order to show Russia’s characteristic soil profiles to the world. However, by the time the soil profiles finally arrived in the United States by ship, the congress was long  over. For many decades, the soil crates gathered dust in a Washington cellar until ISRIC added them to the soil referenc collection  in 1982.

Digital map table

Many of the profiles in the museum show the enormous impact human activity has had on the soil. Examples include  a soil excavated beneath the city of Hilversum and the Terra Preta enriched in organic matter by Indians from the Amazon. The impact of man on the soil can also be studied at the Digital Map Table, with up-to-date soil information  from all over the world. A few mouse clicks reveal that in the past 25 years soils in many countries have been degraded as a result of erosion, sealing, compaction, pollution or desiccation. Theme displays in the museum explain in greater detail the soil’s significance in relation to food security and climate change.

Incidentally, it’s no coincidence that the Netherlands hosts the world’s largest collection of soil monoliths. When the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) teamed up with the Education, Sciences and Culture   ... UNESCO in 1961 to compile the world’s first global soil map, it soon became clear that this would need to be accompanied by a reference collection of soil profiles. After all, the global soil map was based on the division of soils into different classes, such as Gleyic soil units (poorly drained soils), Histosols (containing substantial peat layers) or Gypsisols (incorporating a layer with a substantial  -- in excess of 15% -- accumulation of gypsum). Students and professionals , needed to know what the soil profiles in various parts of the world actually looked like. It was then that the Dutch government pledged to finance such a collection and associated services.