Julie V. Iovine, Wall Street Journal
Salt Lake City

There's nothing like a natural-history museum to give one a little perspective. Compared with the more than 160 million years that dinosaurs stomped the earth, mankind's roughly 20,000-year history is barely a sliver of time. In the past, the grandiose subject of where we came from and what we are made of called for appropriately solemn and magisterial architecture: sweeping stairs, baronial halls, relentless symmetries and axial certainty. In other words, something in the Beaux Arts style.

The Natural History Museum of Utah, at its 200,000-square-foot home on the campus of the University of Utah here, has gone for a different feeling—that of a trailhead. Instead of ascending a grand staircase, you enter as through the faceted, sheer walls of a canyon, rendered in beige plaster and board-formed concrete. Instead of a procession of galleries with symmetrical predictability, the organizational logic is that of switchback paths traversing ramps, bridges and underpasses.

Designed by the New York-based Ennead Architects, with exhibition design by the ubiquitous Ralph Appelbaum Associates, and in collaboration with GSBS Architects, the museum makes an assertive break with formality. It plays up today's educational mantra of experience, discovery and interconnectedness over yesteryear's emphasis on order, direction and significance.

If the interior is conspicuously nontraditional, the exterior of the $102.5 million building, which opened in November, seems barely there at all. In a controversial move, it isn't located near such other downtown cultural venues as the Church History Museum and the Leonardo, the new science, technology and art museum. Instead it straddles a popular hiking trail perched halfway up the slopes of the Wasatch Range, foothills to the Rockies at the edge of both the campus and the town. Had it not been for the spring panoply of bright green grasses visible on a recent visit, the museum, clad in a burnished copper mottled by streaks of zinc and tin, might have disappeared completely amid the reddish-brown rock against which it is set.

 According to Todd Schliemann, a partner of Ennead Architects, camouflage was much to the point in the interest of spreading the natural-history message. To that end—unusual for climate-control-conscious museums—multiple terraces open directly off exhibits. Thus, in one display you can observe a model of Lake Bonneville, which filled the Great Basin during the Pleistocene era some 15,000 years ago before it drained out through Red Rock Pass, leaving nothing but the puddle that is Salt Lake (energetic crankers can even spin a big spigot to fill the display with water and pull the plug on it themselves); then you can step out onto the adjacent terrace to view the actual lake in the distance and check the current level, which apparently varies slightly all the time.

Reminders of the natural world just beyond the walls abound, introducing a redeeming note of seriousness and wonder to the blatant infotainment of the exhibits inside, an Appelbaum trademark. The main lobby is called "The Canyon." It's the kind of sappy naming game that many institutions go for today. But it works, partly because the focal point of the space is an enormous panoramic window that, with breathtaking sweep, delivers natural history live: a view of the entire Salt Lake Valley and snow-capped Oquirrh Mountains. The lobby space is open and expansive, with café tables and cherry-wood benches meant to suggest fallen logs. There's also a 40-foot-tall display wall that serves as a kind of amuse-bouche of collection highlights. It includes dinosaur fossils, conch shells, iridescent butterflies, ancient moccasins and woven baskets. The laudable intention was to provide a public place where people can range widely and even see a little something for free before buying a ticket. Two bridges cross overhead and a third seemingly carved from rock scales the back wall to underscore the adventure theme.

The NHMU may not go in for the old-fashioned coherence of symmetry, but it is organized in a left brain, right brain sort of way, with experiential galleries to the right of the Canyon and active research labs, special exhibits, vitrines for exotic rocks, and artifact storage (viewable through glass doors) to the left. But with wilding toddlers to wrangle (Utah has one of the nation's youngest populations), odds are that it will be to the state-of-the-art interactive right side of the museum that people will head first for a full day of exploration.

You only have to see Allie, the Allosaurus, to realize just how far pedagogical entertainment in the natural sciences has come. This rubbery, stubby-armed flesh-eater was a favorite at the old natural-history museum. Slide a quarter down its craw and it would sing "Do-Re-Mi." Now Allie has been relegated to an out-of-the-way spot by some elevators on the lowest entry level and supplanted by far more sophisticated educational tools. These include five learning labs for school groups and a showcase lab where working scientists pursue their research and bone dusting in full sight of visitors, a reality-show-era diorama.

Keyboards, screens, Post-it notes and good old chalk-and-blackboard beckon for interaction at every possible level. There are rubber bones to fit into the puzzle of a fossil imprint and fake pottery shards to arrange into an ancient painted vase just as archaeologists might. Cleverly, the museum shows off its exceedingly rare collection of competing types of horned triceratops, arranging them just the way local hunters might display their own bagged prey, as heads mounted on the wall.

The Beaux Arts museum of yore presented artifacts—whether rocks, fossils or human tools—in a fashion that made them seem to belong to a more primitive, less complicated time. Today's approach generally makes past and present, nature and human all part of one ingeniously complex continuum. In its new digs, the NHMU captures that spirit at its most awe-inspiring.