December 1, 2011

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Natural History Museum of Utah

Learning From the Past for a Better Future

Peri Kinder

December 1, 2011

There was a time when 50,000-pound Barosaurs and predatory Allosaurs walked the region we now call Utah. There was a time when Lake Bonneville was 1,000 feet deep, covering most of the northwest region. And there was a time when ancient tribes farmed the area of Southern Utah.

Everything changes, and the Natural History Museum of Utah has undergone its own evolution with a new name and state-of-the-art building. The 163,000-square-foot facility opened to the public in mid-November with the purpose to better preserve, protect and display the objects in its care.

Dr. Sarah George has served as the museum’s director for 19 years and says the new building will enhance education, promote Utah’s geographical diversity and provide space for 50 more years of collection growth.

“Providing a science foundation for young people is so important,” she says. “We need to work harder to improve science literacy in this country. You spark that at a young age with the natural sciences.”

On Display

With 10 galleries and one special events gallery with rotating exhibits, NHMU offers visitors the opportunity to learn about Utah’s past, present and future.

The Sky gallery is a rooftop terrace featuring a heliostat and information about the sun, climate and astrology. The next gallery down, Native Voices, pays homage to the five Native American nations found in Utah: the Utes, Shoshonis, Paiutes, Goshutes and Navajo.

“It is a space where we have invited the five nations of Utah to come in and tell their story,” George says. “It has lots of personal interviews, there are beautiful landscape photographs, there are interactive activities for kids and then there’s the collection. It’s just spectacular.”

Visitors then enter the Life room, which demonstrates the different ecosystems in the state. Dioramas, live animals and a hands-on learning lab make this gallery very popular.

The Land gallery represents Utah’s three regions: the Uintah/Wasatch Mountains, the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin including the desert and Great Salt Lake. Visitors to this area can get hands-on with an erosion demonstration and seismic shake table.

A study of Utah’s pre-historic groups is the focus of the First People gallery. Guests visit a walk-in archeological dig, rebuild broken pots or learn ancient weaving techniques. “It’s heavily about the science involved in interpreting the things [American Indians] left behind, so we can understand them,” George explains.

Next, visitors can enjoy the Great Salt Lake room, where a huge picture window faces the Great Salt Lake, and the Gems/Minerals Hall has hundreds of rocks, gems and minerals on exhibit.

In the Past Worlds gallery, a fossil hall displays ice-age mammoths and saber-tooth tigers, while the popular Dinosaur gallery includes a working paleontology lab. Displayed for the first time is the Gryposaurus, a dinosaur dating back 75 million years. Our Backyard is a space for guests between the ages of two and five with fun interactive exhibits and comfy chairs for mom and dad. And the Utah’s Future gallery involves making choices that affect the outlook of the state. The museum worked with a video game company to create the program.

“[This museum gives us] the opportunity to serve so many more people at a much higher level. So the quality the visitors experience, the environment we’re serving people in, the ability to connect to the exterior is much greater,” George says. “We want them to go out and explore the state.”

A Showcase for Utah

The building itself, the Rio Tinto Center, was designed by GSBS Architects, which teamed up with award-winning New York firm Ennead Architects to create an experience that allows visitors to feel immersed in the building and the exhibits.

“The idea of geology, how rocks are formed and shaped, and how they’re moved by tectonics—that came to be the formative thought around the [design],” GSBS Project Manager John Branson says. “We explored different materials to be used in the building, always wanting it to refer back to the state of Utah.”

George believes the design team created a building, and an experience, that will inspire, excite and educate those who visit the museum, adding Salt Lake to the list of cities with destination museums.

“Big cities have strong museums as a contribution to the cultural life of a community. It’s something companies are looking for when they move into an area,” she says. “It’s a good place to showcase the state. The galleries are all about Utah. They promote what those of us live here know: its spectacular beauty and outdoor recreation opportunities.”

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