On the way home from Colorado, Ruth and I stopped in Salt Lake City to see the finest Natural History Museum in our experience, the new (since November, 2011) Natural History Museum of Utah overlooking downtown on the University of Utah’s campus. It’s in the Rio Tinto Center, so named because the donated copper came from Rio Tinto’s Kennecott mine nearby. Inside, the copper looks new and gleams. Outside it’s already weatherbeaten and dull. And that’s the point.
I have not been a fan of natural history museums in the past. The ones of my experience contained dusty dinosaur bones and long-stuffed, rather pathetic animals. But NHMU’s $100,000,000 investment is entirely different. Encouraged to start on Level 5 and work our way down, I was enchanted from the first thing I saw, a giant moon rock from the 1972 Apollo SVII mission. Next to it was a Navajo Star Chart beside a traditional one for contrast purposes.
Encourage to spend 2 to 3 hours since this was our first visit, Ruth and I luckily had that time but, be warned, this is the kind of family-oriented place where you could stay for a month and still be saying, “Just one more exhibit!” The exhibition space is 50,000 square feet.
We were also encouraged to link our smart phone to local wi-fi and look for circular markers in exhibit areas. We did and benefited. For example, we were enchanted by Mary Black’s basket above and saw a phone-only picture of this master Navajo weaver. Extended details made our visit richer. Mary’s basket was in a circular display called Native Voices that explored the history and contemporary lives of members of 5 Utah tribes.
Level 5 also meant the not-to-be-missed Sky Terrace, some weather prediction info, etc. I was looking at a photo of the damage caused by a 1999 tornado that tore through downtown Salt Lake City when a young woman, excited and deeply reminiscing, brought her friends over to see it.
Visitors move from one level to the next by crossing ramps or going down stairs that give vivid views of the building’s design highlights, like the sense-stirring Collections Wall. At one point I passed a window with a magnificent view of the Wasatch Mountains. A few steps later I was watching a boy dig in sand while learning how water shapes a sandy landscape. Down another ramp Ruth was playing with an exhibit that dramatically showed how sand dunes form.
In gems and minerals I leaned down to look at a magnificent amethyst and found a surprising “Please Touch” sign. I did.
Take the time to read the quotes scattered everywhere on the walls, like, Michael Novacek’s “…experts can look at the same rock sequence with the same tools and the same sources of information and come up with wildly different conclusions. Like the witnesses to a traffic accident, they just don’t see the event the same way.”
Nearby a teenager was walking across a brightly lit display of artifacts under his feet and saying, “You can walk on it! That is so cool.” Indeed.