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History Carved Out of the Hills

Published: 03/23/2012

by Edward Rothstein, The New York Times

SALT LAKE CITY - All museums are temples of sorts, monuments to collectors or cultures, declarations of identity, gathering places for tribute. But museums of natural history have an even more distinctive stature. Their focus is not human history, measured in centuries, but natural history, measured in eons. And their subject is not a particular culture and its accomplishments, but a world that seems to stand beyond culture altogether. Natural history museums seek their ground in the earth itself.

That is one reason that the Natural History Museum of Utah, which opened last fall in a new $102 million, 17-acre home in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountain Range, has such a powerful impact. Here, at Salt Lake City's edge, above the geological shoreline of the ancient Lake Bonneville, the earth is vividly present: seen in nearby snow-covered mountains, in the winding hiking and biking path that runs past the museum, and in the untouched land above. Most natural history museums are in urban centers, offering reminders of a distant natural world, but this one is housed in the realm it surveys; it is at home.

The museum is associated with the University of Utah, and for more than 40 years, as its director, Sarah B. George, explained to me, it had inadequate quarters for research and collections. A new building was needed, and a combination of public and private funds encouraged ambitious planning.

So when the principal designers were selected, they toured Utah, whose landscapes include winding canyons, otherworldly rock formations and looming stone cliffs.

The chief architect, Todd Schliemann, who designed the Rose Center at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, and whose firm, Ennead Architects, teamed up with GSBS Architects for the project, said: "This whole state is architecture. How am I supposed to compete with this?"

He doesn't, really. But he pays homage, echoing natural features in the building's faceted planes and reflective glass panels. The museum is terraced into the hillside, built in the form of three interconnected bars that seem to have sheared against one another, leaving jagged surfaces.

The building is clad in 42,000 square feet of copper sheeting, which is laid out in shaded bands with mixtures of zinc and tin, resembling both the strata of Utah's mountains and the examinations of those layers in the exhibitions. Native plants grow on the rooftop, and solar panels provide some electric power.

Within the museum, the earth's presence is still palpable, visible through walls of windows and across landscaped terraces. A 60-foot-high central atrium, called the Canyon, is less spectacular than intended, partly because the panoramic view of snow-covered mountains is so much more compelling than the fancifully jagged interior.

But the Canyon functions as the building's axis. On one side are 28,000 square feet of office and storage space and research facilities, housing more than 1.2 million objects. On the other side are 44,000 square feet of exhibitions designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the most impressive of which play off of the natural forms already seen, leading visitors on switchback paths that climb through the earth's landscapes and timescapes.

Two of the shows - one of dinosaurs ("Past Worlds") and the other of geological transformations ("Land") - are viewed from raked pathways that head upward: through time in "Past Worlds," and through geological space in "Land." And each deals not with generalities, but with what can be found in Utah itself.

The state's fossils and quarries offer traces of extraordinary expanses of time in an unusually compressed space. The dinosaur gallery's ramp takes you through roughly 200 million years, and while it is sometimes easy to lose the chronological thread, another kind of drama is found in the variation of the fossil casts and creatures on display.

One of the gallery's immense walls shows a family tree of sorts, mapped with mounted horned dinosaur skulls. We also find the only known skeleton of Nothronychus graffami, a plant-eating creature that looks as eccentric as its name suggests.

In the most intriguing display, the mystery of the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry is posed: more than 12,000 fossil bones have been found in this 150-million-year-old lake bed near Cleveland, Utah, belonging to at least 70 animals.

University of Utah scientists have studied them since 1929, and we see some of their casts here. But why are so many different fossils in one place? Four explanations are proposed in videos: the dinosaurs died from bacteria in the water; they perished in a drought; the muddy swamp was a predator trap; or the bodies were washed up in a flood. There is no conclusion.

You cannot remain passive in the face of this presentation, and that is often the case throughout the museum. Many displays for children are also engaging. ("Press to sniff," reads the label near one button. "Get a whiff of a fetid forest.") And there are demonstrations of water and wind erosion, a floor map of the Great Salt Lake, and traditional dioramas with animal specimens in Utah's varied habitats.

In some galleries, particularly those dealing with DNA and animal populations, the pace is overly rapid. But overall, the exhibitions fulfill the natural history museum's almost mythological function: forging the scientific counterpart of the creation story, dramatizing and demonstrating the forces of the natural world from which culture has risen.

This also means that the institution touches on one of the most politically fraught aspects of the natural history museum's heritage. Traditionally, many of these institutions have been repositories for American Indian collections and artifacts of other ancient cultures, which were thought to belong because these peoples were considered closer to the natural world. Now such collections are as central to the natural history museum as are holdings of minerals or fossils.

The approach here is to take this association for granted and then tell an archaeological and anthropological story. The result is an illuminating show called "First Peoples." We see examples of twine from before 4000 B.C.; corn on the cob from A.D. 900-1275; and moccasins from the 13th century. A coiled basket, preserved in the dry darkness of one of Utah's desert caves, is dated 7000 B.C.

We learn of the discovery of one such cave in 1938, by the archaeologist Julian Steward, who found 248 moccasins dating back almost a millennium. He guessed they belonged to immigrants, since they had little in common with their surroundings.

These displays fit well with the Range Creek Research Project at the University of Utah: some 400 archaeological sites have been identified, associated with the state's earliest farmers, living in the region from about 300 to 1350.

The unfolding of the history is a little scattered, but it is refreshingly free of contemporary tribal commentary and claims, unlike many other exhibitions since the passage of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

But then, on the museum's top floor, it is as if political recompense were being made. A display called "Sky," for example, notably avoids surveying the heavens that can be seen through the gallery's window. But we do find two sky charts, one used by the Navajo, the other by Western astronomers, along with suggestions of equivalence, paying homage both to "indigenous knowledge" and "Western science."

Clearly the Navajo chart has far less information. It also invokes mythological tales, just as the Ancient Greeks did when they projected their heritage into the heavens. But does it contain an understanding close to that of Western astronomy in, say, the 18th century?

In another gallery tribal voices are used to chronicle local Indian history, accompanied by contemporary crafts. But the accounts offer less insight into the 19th century's great injustices than historians have. And the commentary follows formula.

One tribe, we read, "hunted the game-rich mountains and fished the lakes. They gathered plants and wove baskets." Another tribe's bands "have always come together for antelope and rabbit hunts, trade, social gatherings and intermarriage." And another makes "many objects to honor and care for their babies."

The particular tribal identities here do not make much difference. There are a few compelling details - the conversion of the Shoshone to the Mormon Church - but we are left with vagueness and platitudes.

These are the least informative galleries, awkward appendages to a superior museum. Perhaps a visitor should start on the top floor with its examples of human frailty, violence, guilt and pride, and proceed downward, through galleries devoted to the shaping of the earth and the evolution of the astounding creatures within it. Then the tour would come to an end on firmer ground, with a more inspiring perspective.

The Natural History Museum of Utah is on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City; www.nhmu.utah.edu.

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