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New Utah Museums Natural History Museum & The Leonardo

Published: 11/21/2011
DinosaurBy Scott Renshaw, City Weekly (November 21, 2011)--Four hundred years ago, if you were interested in seeing fascinating objects to learn about the world, you would probably have to visit “cabinets of wonders”—rooms where those objects were organized and displayed to be experienced passively. And through most of the 20th century, that model didn’t change much. As the Natural History Museum of Utah’s director, Sarah George, describes it, “Through the 1960s, [the approach] was ‘textbook on a wall.’” Two recently opened Salt Lake City museums—the new Natural History Museum of Utah building and The Leonardo—represent the effort both to make the museum experience fully immersive and interactive, and to anchor the exhibits firmly in a unique sense of place so that it doesn’t feel that you could find the same exhibits in any museum in the country, or the world.

For the NMHU Rio Tinto Center, that singular experience is largely a function of geography, tied to the specific site chosen for the museum. Built in terraced levels onto the hillside above the University of Utah near Red Butte Garden, the building offers several spectacular views; as George describes the design plan, “The last thing we wanted to do was create a ‘black box.’”

In many cases, those views are tied directly to the nearby exhibits. One gallery that addresses the evolution over time from the prehistoric Lake Bonneville to the current Great Salt Lake leads directly to a window looking out onto the lake itself.

Such a design approach proves to be only one of the ways in which the NMHU consistently maintains a focus on Utah-specific paleontology, anthropology, zoology, climatology and other scientific disciplines. The “Past Worlds” gallery combines impressive showpieces like full dinosaur skeletons with an exhibit that addresses the fossil-rich Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry south of Price, and the various—sometimes conflicting—theories regarding how so many fossils came to rest in one site. As the traffic pattern of the galleries flows from the ancient world into modernity, artifacts and exhibits address everything from the science of mapping a Fremont dwelling site to the change in the land itself from wind, water and plate tectonics.

And “textbook on a wall” is a mere fraction of the equation. Even “hands-on” seems like an inadequate description, as the interactive exhibits allow visitors to not just create a river valley in a tactile way, but to engage every sense—from listening to Native stories in the original languages, to smelling a briny whiff of the Salt Lake. “We have an understanding of how people learn by doing,” George says.

The same principles seem to have guided the creation of The Leonardo, the science and technology-themed facility that opened to the public in October. Even in the lobby, the commissioned art pieces introduce visitors into a completely interactive environment. “Dynamic Performance of Nature,” by Brian Brush and Yong Ju Lee, represents weather and seismic activity in Utah and around the world through solar-powered LED lights rippling across fixed panels; visitors with smartphones can send Twitter messages that change the light pattern. Philip Beesley’s “Hylozoic Veil” employs motion sensors in an ever-changing artificial-intelligence “sculpture” that responds to its environment.

While many of the exhibits are interactive, Leonardo publicist Lisa Davis describes the approach to that interactivity as one that’s “layered,” allowing visitors to determine how many of the available options to use. A specific installation may feature text on a wall, but also an opportunity to phone in an audio component, or use a smartphone to scan a QR code that accesses additional online content. Visitors can even build on exhibits in ways that can be seen and experienced by other visitors, like an abstract map of Utah that invites people to hang their own answers to a regularly changing question.

Like the NHMU, the Leonardo explores its mission not just in ways that are interactive, but in ways that are connected to this place. One current exhibit allows visitors to explore demographic statistics from various Utah cities—for education, crime, household size and more—to allow for comparisons, while also providing context that allows for an understanding of how those statistics can be more fully understood. Another exhibit—in a gallery that will regularly highlight Utah-based technology innovators—looks at advances in the creation of prosthetic limbs, focusing on the work of Utah company Otto Bock in developing more naturally responsive prostheses.

Davis notes that the Leonardo considers programs for adults a key component of the institution’s mission, moving away from a paradigm of museums as places for kids to go on field trips. It’s just one more part of the ongoing evolution in the concept of museums represented by the Leonardo and the NHMU—toward open-ended exploration of wonders that can’t be contained by cabinets.