By Jill Riddell

If, as some people say, the Field Museum went astray with “The Art of the Motorcycle,” it has redeemed itself with its new permanent exhibit, “Underground Adventure.” No shiny chrome gleams in this show, and Peter Fonda didn’t show up for preview parties. For the museum has taken on a subject that’s perhaps the least glamorous on earth: dirt.

The exhibit begins with the pretense that you’re about to be shrunk to the size of a bug. As you walk through the corridor of the “shrink chamber,” the tiles on the floor grow larger while a mirror makes you appear smaller. By the time you walk into the simulated-soil-environment portion of the exhibit, you are one-hundredth your normal size. The roof, walls, and floor are made of brown lumps, and snaking throughout them are replicas of white roots and fungi. Some of the roots are as thick as a linebacker’s thigh, others are mere threads. There’s a bur oak acorn the size of half a Volkswagen, a prairie crayfish as thick as a tree trunk, a mole cricket the size of a small couch.

It’s unnerving to see these creatures on such a scale. But it does make invertebrates more relevant when it’s not possible to crunch them underfoot. Entomologists bemoan human beings’ ability to ignore insects, which constitute the vast majority of animals on the planet as well as much of what is featured in the exhibit. “Underground Adventure” conquers our unwillingness to pay attention to the world of invertebrates by making them large enough to eat us.

Exhibit designers have played up the horror-movie aspect, with a giant earwig that lurches forward to defend her eggs and a wolf spider that devours a beetle grub “as big as your head!” according to the promotional materials. The exhibit uses the animatronics that have become familiar to Chicago museumgoers since the “DinoRama!” exhibit at the Chicago Academy of Sciences in the 1980s.

Though the technology of the action figures is similar to Disney World’s, the designers had no need to exaggerate the appearance or actions of the underground animals to make them terrifying. For what goes on down there is every bit as rich and brutal as what takes place in a tropical jungle, though none of the players are colorful or pretty–and some are downright ugly.

This essential quality of soil and its denizens creates an aesthetic problem for the exhibit. There’s an awful lot of brown down there, with only the occasional white, beige, or putty to relieve it. To their credit, the designers didn’t succumb to the temptation to rainbow up the drab environment with purple grubs or aqua ants. One small diorama does show some rice-sized bacteria the color of bricks–but if they weren’t red you’d probably never spot them.

In every respect the exhibit tries to be true to what one might actually find in the first few inches of Illinois topsoil. In one corner of the exhibit an enormous dead root is in the process of rotting. The sight is disgusting. But interpretive materials explain that the root is being acted on by decomposers such as fungi and microbes. Grazers, including mites and springtails, eat the decomposers. And predators such as the rove beetle hunt the grazers.

All of which is interesting stuff and important too. The decomposition demonstrated is the very process that frees up nutrients so that a dead root can feed new plants.

Aside from its purely utilitarian value, soil is a subject ripe for study, for it’s incredibly complex and biologically rich and it tells us a lot about the nature of life. And there are many more species and individual organisms under the ground than above it. When we think of preserving or restoring ecosystems almost all of our attention is paid to what we can easily see, yet what goes on out of sight has been so little studied that an estimated 30 to 40 percent of soil organisms are unknown to science.

The exhibit’s literature swears you’ll emerge with a “new understanding of your own relationship to the Earth’s soil and of the formidable challenge we face to use it wisely.” Understanding soil is critical to our survival, but I suspect the exhibit isn’t going to have such long lines of people waiting to get in that they back up traffic on Lake Shore Drive. It will be interesting to learn how well visited the exhibit is over time. Someday, perhaps, we won’t remember that there was ever a time when we didn’t understand that soil is important–much as we now forget that there was a time when we didn’t believe recycling was a good thing to do.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Earwig photo by John Weinstein.