Inside the Rio Tinto Center. The New Home of the Natural History Museum of Utah
By Terry Gildea
Salt Lake City – After years of planning, construction and sheer anticipation, the Rio Tinto Center , the new home for the Natural History Museum of Utah, officially opens to the public on Friday . KUER's Terry Gildea got a sneak peek inside the place that will showcase the natural wonders of the state.
The path to the entrance of the new Natural History Museum is not a direct one. People will meander up several switch backs from the parking lot and get a good look at the earth-toned majestic structure literally set inside the land. Todd Schliemann is the design architect for the building. He and other partners from Ennead Architects in New York spent several years studying the geography of Utah as they prepared to design the structure they wanted to symbolize the beauty and magnitude of the state's unique landscapes.
"Part of it is that it has no scale. It could be a very small rock outcrop or it could be fifty stories tall. Until you put a person in it, you don't know how big it is. And in a funny way I think this building works like that , in that when you walk into it, yes you feel a little small, but maybe you also feel you like you're in a cathedral and the space is beginning to lift you up and getting you ready to learn, to receive information," said Schlieman.
Walking inside patrons will immediately climb stairs up to a landing the museum has dubbed The Canyon. It's designed as a public gathering space and its signature feature is panoramic view of the Salt Lake Valley through windows that stretch several stories. Also in the canyon is an enormous glass case called the collections wall that showcases over 500 items from the museum's various research collections. After leaving The Canyon the first stop is past worlds. Here kids and adults alike can gawk and wonder at more than a dozen reconstructed dinosaur skeletons.
"This is one of the largest duck-billed dinosaurs to mounted anywhere in the U.S. The animal is about 90 percent complete and we have the skull, for weight reasons we couldn't mount that on there, but most of the rest of the bones you see are completely real."
Randy Irmis is the Curator of Paleontology for the museum. He takes us to one of several fossil dig exhibits lodged in the floor and covered by glass patrons can walk over.
"What you're standing on is a duck-billed dinosaur skeleton with skin impressions. And we've tried to lay it out as it was found in the field to give people a sense of what it's like when you find these fossils. They're not always just perfectly laid out like you see in Jurassic Park," said Irmis
Each level is filled of the museum is packed with interactive opportunities. Sarah George is the Executive Director.
"One of our goals was for families to be able to experience the museum together and so in each area you'll find something to look at, something to listen to, something to smell we have smells, and something to do," said Irmis.
We move through several more themed exhibits that explore how the unique landscape of Utah formed over thousands of years of plate tectonics and geological unrest, but each facet intertwines several fields of science.
"What we've tried to do throughout the museum is to create very interdisciplinary exhibits so that you're not learning about rocks at a particular time, but also about plants, about paleontology, about hydrology and all the forces that go together because that's really how we learn when we're out in nature ourselves."
Becky Menlove is exhibit director for the museum. She says the opportunities for kids to explore science here are endless.
"Kids who imagine themselves as archeologists or as other scientists because this is a place where we can inspire that curiosity early on and get kids trying their hand at observation, at study at really trying to figure out things on their own," said Menlove.
We continue up through the exhibits on life with displays detailing all kinds of animal species found in Utah. Also found here are interactive lessons how mapping genes and the process of photosynthesis. Climbing our last set of stairs, we surface on the museum's top floor dedicated to all the sciences that study the sky. Here patrons can learn about cloud formations, weather patterns and study the mysteries of the cosmos. On an outdoor deck connected to this level, museum staff will host star gazing events. The deck is already outfitted with racks to mount telescopes.
Inside the native voices gallery, just east of the sky exhibit, the stories of Utah's Indian nations are told by their members. Becky Menlove says several native advisers were consulted so the space could reflect several themes.
"This is another feature that the native group wanted to have is to be as closely connected to the earth as possible and it's the eastern most part of our building . So we're really honoring the east, we're honoring the circle and we're honoring the land by placing this gallery where it's placed," said Menlove.
One of the attractions of the gallery is a fifteen minute film produced by Kate Raiz and projected on to five screens in the gallery that explores the five native nations of Utah: the Ute, Navajo, Goshute, Shoshone and Piute.
Years of design, construction and preparation are finally being realized this week as the more than 100 million dollar Rio Tinto Center opens its doors. Museum Director Sarah George is anxious to gauge people's reactions.
"We will learn a lot from our first visitors and we'll be making some tweaks as time goes on, but we're very excited to debut the museum for the public, said George.
The museum is asking patrons to make reservations for a visit. As a result more than 3500 people are scheduled for Friday's grand opening and that entire day is sold out. But reservations for Saturday and beyond are still available at the museum's website: nhmu.utah.edu/.