Digging Into The Museum Of Dirt

The curator of the Museum of Dirt is surprisingly clean and well-groomed as he greets a visitor. Just because Glenn Johanson has collected hundreds of dirt samples from around the world, doesn't mean he likes to wear the same shirt all week or walk around in a cloud of dust like Pigpen in the Peanuts comic strip.

It helps to look presentable when you are collecting a specimen at the end of someone's driveway. "If people ask me what I'm doing," Mr. Johanson says, "I explain it, and that gives them a smile. I'm just taking soil, dust, and debris."

The "museum" is really more of a "dirt gallery." It's housed in the offices of Planet Interactive, the Boston multimedia company where Johanson works. Some 300 samples of dirt in small glass bottles are displayed on shelves in the lobby and conference room. The company designs Web pages, among other things.

In fact, the best way to view the dirt collection is on the company's Web site. (The address is at the end of this story.)

Why does Johanson collect dirt?

He came up with the idea several years ago while making car trips between Los Angeles and Las Vegas on business.

"Instead of buying trinkets or memorabilia from the places I was traveling to," he says, "I thought, 'What's common to these places? What would be interesting to collect that would be everywhere?' "

The answer, he realized, lay at his feet.

His first dirt "souvenir" came from beneath a bush at the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas. (Liberace - pronounced "lib-er-AHTCH-ee" - was a pianist and showman known for his flashy clothes.)

Today, the Museum of Dirt is running out of room. People who have heard of Johanson's hobby send him samples, and he continues to collect on his own. Each sample has a carefully filled-out card saying where it was collected, who collected it, and when.

Johanson not only has samples of "the reddest dirt," and "the whitest sand" in the United States, he also has expanded his search by writing to people around the world. Many of them are celebrities. He mails them a letter, a card to fill out, a heavy-duty sandwich bag with a zip closure, and an envelope for returning the sample.

Often, the people he writes to agree to send in dirt. TV tycoon Ted Turner did. So did Vanna White of "Wheel of Fortune" game-show fame and baseball great Ted Williams. (Mr. Williams sent dirt from his own museum in Hernando, Fla.)

Sometimes the people he writes to do not send dirt. But the letters they send back saying why they can't send any dirt may be even more interesting than the dirt they didn't send. (You can see some of these replies on the Web site.)

Prince Charles's royal reply

Filmmaker George Lucas was too busy making "Star Wars" sequels. The Walt Disney Company, responding for chairman Michael Eisner, saw no "obvious tie" to the exhibit. And Prince Charles, in a staff-produced letter on royal stationery, respectfully declined, citing the overwhelming number of requests made of the Prince of Wales.

"I'm not a scientist," Johanson says of the collection. He likes the fun aspect of dirt collecting. "I define 'dirt,' for this collection, as anything you find at a particular site," he says during this reporter's visit. It could be man-made, it could be soil, it could be trash.

A friend of his contributed what may be the bluest dirt on earth from Blue Earth, Minn., as well as some of the pinkest from Hurley, N.M.

The museum has richly colored brown sand from the Saudi Arabian desert alongside a mishmash of debris Johanson retrieved from Times Square in New York City after a New Year's Eve celebration.

"It's like New York in a bottle," he says of the sample, which includes theater-ticket stubs and confetti.

Many famous places are represented in his collection: the Great Wall of China; Pompeii in Italy; the Acropolis in Greece; Omaha Beach in Normandy, France (site of the World War II Allied invasion); and the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas.

There is ash from the Mt. St. Helens eruption in Washington State and elephant dung from Nairobi, Kenya. He has black volcanic sand from a beach in Hawaii. He has many whimsical samples, too, including dryer lint from humorist Dave Barry.

A backlog of about 50 specimens awaits Johanson's attention. One is a jar of "Packer Paydirt," identified on the label as "The heart and 'soil' of Lambeau Field," the stadium where pro-football's Green Bay Packers play. The dirt sells for $9.95 a jar. The Museum of Dirt was given a free sample. It is against museum policy to buy dirt, the curator explains.

Missing: one more continent

If Johanson did buy dirt, he might have some meteor fragments by now. That would plug one of the two big gaps in his collection: He doesn't have anything extraterrestrial (from outer space), and he doesn't have any dirt from Antarctica. He has dirt from the other six continents, though (North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia).

Smaller gaps are closer to home. He doesn't have dirt from Connecticut or Indiana, for example.

Johanson likes samples to be distinctive for their color, content, location, or other feature. He seldom rejects a sample, though, unless it's a duplicate.

His favorite local sample comes from the bottom of Boston Harbor, dredged up by construction crews building an underwater tunnel. A fellow worker scooped up some harbor dirt piled near the company's waterfront offices.

What will become of the Museum of Dirt? Johanson says he'll probably donate it to a real museum someday - maybe a children's museum. But for now his collection "just keeps evolving and growing. It's great fun," he says. He spends three to five days a month keeping up with all the dirt people send him.

And, of course, someone has to help keep the Museum of Dirt clean.

* The Museum of Dirt, c/o Planet Interactive, 36 Drydock Ave., Boston, MA 02210. For a virtual 'tour' of the museum on the World Wide Web, call up: planet.com/dirtweb/dirt.html

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