Utah’s new Natural History Museum, with its construction completed, is now open to the public.
The museum has been moved from the stately but cramped building it occupied for almost half a century on Presidents Circle at the University of Utah, to an even more spacious building that blends right into the mountain range atop the Research Park area of the campus.
The museum’s exterior, with its oblong shape and sun-reflecting striated, rectangular panels of copper, brass, and bronze, in varying lengths and widths, looks like a young pine cone resting on its side. Once inside, a tour guide said that the exterior was actually made to resemble the colorful hatch-work of patterns found in Utah’s naturally-occurring geological structures – think the walls of the Narrows in Zion’s National Park.
Admission to the museum is priced at $9 for adults. Discounts are available for seniors and children. For students attending the University of Utah, it’s free.
The second floor’s entrance leads directly into the museum’s grand lobby. Its vaulted ceiling allows one to look up and see a sort of floating skywalk cemented to the lobby’s back wall. This connects the fourth floor on one side to the fifth on the other side.
A wall of paned windows on the west side of the lobby allows for panoramic views of the cityscape in the valley below and seems to flood the place with the soft glow of natural light. The light harmonizes with the lobby’s neutral colors, ivory walls and gray concrete flooring, which is polished to reveal more of the gravel in its mixture and mimic the state’s streambeds. The distant sound of either rushing air or running water makes the experience all the more relaxing.
Across its different locations, the museum has been actively collecting for over 100 years with well more than a million items in its inventory. Although not every item is on display, it’s still a lot to take in.
The museum’s collection ranges from the dinosaur skeletons and stuffed animals on the second floor, to the dizzying array of gems and minerals including a solid chunk of gold on the third floor. Galleries of Native American artifacts are located on the fifth floor, done in cooperation with local tribes.
The museum’s shapes were designed with triangles in mind to honor the arches and sheering that occurs in layers of sandstone and cliff sides in Utah’s canyons. The building was constructed with a mentality of energy-efficiency and environmentally-attuned care at a premium. Planners strived to make use of recycling and Utah-based resources whenever possible.
The open air terrace of the fifth floor has a wood, patio-like flooring made from unstained Brazilian ironwood. The other two woods used in the building were cherry for furnishings and maple around Native artifacts. Crews on roof levels below were making preparations to install solar panels.
Planners had thought to include such amenities as a few reclining sun chairs and even a pet-level drinking fountain out front, which went nicely with the nearby Bonneville Shoreline Trail where recreationists can walk their dogs.
“The Eyes of the Future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time,” reads a quote on a wall from the late conservationist Terry Tempest Williams near the museum’s grand lobby.
The museum’s most breathtaking display is its multi-story, whirlwind-like exhibit that greets visitors and symbolizes the whole of the museum’s contents. These pieces too are seemingly suspended in air. Seashells climb upward to be replaced by moccasins; butterflies meld into arrowheads and woven wares from Native peoples, not to mention dinosaur bones, rocks, gulls, and a totem pole.
I’d recommend to everyone seeing the museum with your own eyes, but expect to make enough of a day of it, because it’s all a lot to take in.
The museum is accessible by turning east on Wakara Way from Foothill Drive, just north of Emigration Canyon. On Wakara Way, head straight up the hill but be attentive, the entrance to the parking lot is easy to miss. For those familiar with Red Butte Garden, the museum was built into the open space on the opposite side of the street.