The making of Utah’s newest architectural gem: the Natural History Museum of Utah

Set into the foothills to the east of Salt Lake City, the Natural History Museum of Utah was designed to accent and blend into the natural environment.
It’s three months before opening day and Sarah George wishes the haze wasn’t spoiling the view. Standing atop the Sky Deck at the Natural History Museum of Utah, the museum’s director looks out across the Salt Lake Valley, which on a clear day would allow her to see all the way into Utah County. She can’t wait for that clear day to come, the construction to end and the masses of Utahans to see the view from the new museum on the hill and the all the wonders it contains.
“This view is part of the museum,” George says. “It’s an exhibit in itself, and as we go inside, we’ll explore every aspect of what we are seeing below us.”
The Natural History Museum of Utah in Rio Tinto Center opened in November to “oohs” and “aahs.” Since 2008, hikers on the poplar Bonneville Shoreline Trail have watched the building become a stunning architectural gem.
Utah Museum of Natural History, Salt Lake City, Utah, Ennead Architects
The museum’s open spaces that can be used as reception spaces.
Long before the fist shovel turned dirt on the project, George methodically consulted colleagues around the country pressing two questions: “What do you hate about your museum? And what do you love?”
“I spent a lot of time talking to directors about mistakes they made and things they found successful,” she says.
George was able to implement this knowledge in collaboration with a team that would work uniquely in concert. The museum’s building committee chose the New York-based architectural firm Polshek Partnership (now called Ennead Architects) to work as consultants with local firm Gillies Stransky Brems Smith (GSBS), known for its work on the Olympic speed skating oval in Kearns. At the same time, they hired the exhibit designers Ralph Appelbaum Associates and landscape architects Design Workshop.
“We wanted the building, the site and the exhibits to be designed together as an integrated whole,” she says. “It was important that every one work together from the beginning.”
Selections from the museum’s collection of artifacts and natural wonders are displayed to great effects on the glass Collection Wall.
Road Trip
To facilitate cooperation between the different experts and to introduce them to the museum’s central topic, George demanded an interesting condition to be fulfilled in each contract. “They had to go on the tour of the state with me,” she says.
Because the museum is really a museum of Utah itself, George felt it essential that the team understand the larger context of what they would be designing. So two groups of the principals from each firm, 20 people in all, embarked on a trip to Utah’s natural wonders.
“It was a lot of fun to take these guys from New York around Utah,” GSBS Architect David Brems recalls. “We too often take it for granted, but when you haven’t seen it and get to Canyonlands, it’s really awe inspiring.”
They trundled through the San Raphael Swell, hiked around Arches, explored Range Creek, peered into the canyons at Dead Horse Point. They wiggled their toes in the Colorado River, passed the Ponderosas of Cedar Breaks State Park and waded across Indian Creek. They saw the Uintas, Flaming Gorge and the Salt Flats, Antelope Island and our Great Salt Lake. In short, a crash course in natural Utah.
“Having all of them together in that experience gave them a true sense of place,” George says. “This museum had to be about this place, and if they hadn’t seen it, they couldn’t articulate it. We gave them the vocabulary they could use to communicate.”
Utah Museum of Natural History, Salt Lake City, Utah, Ennead Architects
Landscape designers used reclaimed materials from the excavation to create retaining walls and other design elements leading up to the main building.
From Sky to Earth
The building’s facade, plated in subtle copper, both blends in with and accentuates its setting-the hillside by Red Butte Garden.
“We wanted the building to melt into the hillside, to stand out but also belong to the site,” George says.
And melt it does. From the front, it is difficult to imagine that inside are five stories of exhibit and research space. That’s because it’s built into the hillside. It uses the hill as both an engineering support and a way to create a larger space inside than its facade reveals.
Once inside, the first “wow” of the museum, architecturally, is “The Canyon.” To call it a foyer is too coarse a term. From this vast space, visitors can see up into all the floors and all the way to the back of the building to “The Foot,” a striking stairway that backs the space (and also acts as a seismic support). A climb up The Foot will take you to the Sky Room and the Sky Deck, and from there you can descend in a spiral through the exhibit halls that take you through the layer of life in Utah.
From Sky, you go to life-the creatures that inhabit Utah and the places they live. Then into the geology-the rocks and formations that make up Utah-then into the water. You’ll walk across an aquatic representation of the Great Salt Lake and its gigantic ancestor Lake Bonneville. Next, it’s on to what lies beneath, the bones of the giant reptiles and mammals that roamed the land and swam in Lake Bonneville.
“You can’t understand the building in one visit,” Brems says. “It might take you 10 visits. It’s so richly layered with ideas and concepts that you want to come back over an over.”
Utah Museum of Natural History, Salt Lake City, Utah, Ennead Architects
The Collection Wall is located in what designers call “The Canyon.”
Take a Tour
Explore the Rio Tinto Center’s unique design, materials, green features and public art on a guided architecture tour. Included with museum admission, tour are offered weekdays at 11 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 1:30 p.m., 3 p.m. and Sundays at 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. Tours begin in The Canyon at the Collections Wall and lasts 45 to 60 minutes.
Natural History Museum of Utah Director Sarah George

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