Natural History Museum opens on U. of U. campus

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Driving to Salt Lake only takes an hour, but enduring construction-induced traffic is now a small price to pay in order to travel 150 million years back in time.

The Natural History Museum of Utah opens Friday at the distinctive Rio Tinto Center in Salt Lake City. Featuring everything from dinosaurs to DNA, it is a museum of Utah’s history which has been dreamed about for almost 20 years.

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The Natural History Museum of Utah opens in Salt Lake City on Friday.
The new museum differs drastically from the previous museum which was housed at the University of Utah’s former library, where conditions were too low to keep bones and other relics in good condition.

Sarah George, executive director, said along with no climate control, the building had only 12 parking spaces, and no loading dock. Every item, no matter how large, had to be carried through the front door, or it could not be used. Because of this, change was necessary.

Todd Schliemann, an architect with a New York City architecture firm, was chosen for the project. He said his main goal was to make sure the land and the views were used to show the most beauty and to represent the people of Utah.

“This is a building about science, absolutely,” Schliemann said. “But for me, I’m an architect, and so my job is to make sure the people that come here are ready to receive the science and the information from the moment they begin approaching the building.”

The first room of the museum is large and open, called the Canyon. With high walls and ceilings, it reflects the scenery of Utah and opens out on a view of the greater Salt Lake area. The Canyon features a floor-to-ceiling glass display, encasing items which represent the multiple galleries throughout the museum. The public is welcome in the Canyon without a ticket, to enjoy the beauty of the room and the view, as well as a large observation deck, open on the West side.

“The feeling you get here is that it’s the spirit of the canyon,” Schliemann said. “Then as you go up you’ll traverse up the galleries. The building terraces up the hill, so the galleries do too.”

Randy Irmis, a curator, has worked with the museum for three years. He focused on the embedded learning experience the museum has to offer, including classrooms and many interactive displays throughout each exhibit. The fossil preparation lab is visible to the public to show the process of excavation.

“It’s really all part of this goal to integrate paleontology and science in general into the learning environment,” Irmis said.

After passing a wall of fossils, visitors enter a room filled with reconstructed dinosaur skeletons native to Utah, some of whose heads almost hit the 50-foot ceilings. The museum continues through a room exhibiting the history of the Great Salt Lake by having the outlines of what used to be Lake Bonneville, and how it drained down to today’s Great Salt Lake.

Throughout the rest of the museum, exhibits included the First Peoples, Land, Life, Sky and a Native Voices exhibit. Each exhibit features interactive activities for visitors to use. In the land exhibit, visitors can turn on a stream of water which flows through sand, showing how rivers and run-offs are formed. Another shows how mountains and valleys are formed by using a wooden block which splits apart to reflect Utah’s landscape.

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"Butterfly in the sky..." These soaring insects are one of the features of Utah's newest museum.
The Native Voices exhibit is unique, because it features Utah’s five native nations, telling their own stories rather than them being told from a scientific perspective. George said the tribes agreed to help with the exhibit on the condition it was a circular room on ground level, requests which the museum honored. In the center of the exhibit is a storytelling area, where headphones are provided to hear stories told by members of the five nations. For stories that are not in English, the translation is provided to read along.

As a whole, George said she is proud of the finished product. What she said she loves most is how each exhibit is interactive yet informative, providing a museum for people of all ages.

“In any one particular area, you’ll have recordings, a hands-on area and objects to look at,” she said. “Families can stay together the whole time, and enjoy it together.”

George said she loves spending time in the museum, but she hopes visiting the museum will encourage residents to go outside and explore what the state has to offer.

“We hope what people will take away from their visit is a little more information about Utah,” George said. “We hope that they will go out across the state, using this as their trail-header.”

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