Discuss as:

Eons of natural history on display at new Utah museum

Natural History Museum of Utah

The new Rio Tinto Center at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

Utah will soon have a first-rate museum to exhibit the state’s impressive cultural and geographical history. On November 18, the Natural History Museum of Utah will open its $102.5 million Rio Tinto Center, which includes 10 permanent galleries spread over 34,000 square feet of exhibit space.

The new center, which makes the museum one of the most prominent natural history destinations in the American West, focuses on the state’s ancient ecosystems, biogeography, native peoples and how climate change and population growth are expected to shape the state in the future.

The museum mimics the contours of the nearby sandstone and limestone mountains in shape and with its construction materials. It is built into terraces in the foothills of the Wasatch Range, which emerged approximately 15 million years ago. Copper from the Bingham Canyon mine across the Salt Lake Valley and sandstone excavated from the site itself were used as building materials.

“We’ve incorporated the exterior into the experience,” said the museum’s executive director, Sarah George.  “A lot of our galleries have great big picture windows that show a view of the area that is interpreted inside.”

Those views include the Great Salt Lake, surrounding canyons, and three mountain ranges extending into the Great Basin desert.

Inside the museum, the exhibits explore what defined those landscapes long ago. “Past Worlds” features an adult and adolescent Teratophoneus, a newly discovered Tyrannosaur species closely related to Tyrannosaurus rex (among other features, the skull shape and number of teeth are different). The specimens were unearthed at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument dig site in southern Utah.

Vertebrate paleontology curator Randall Irmis said that because Utah’s landscape is so barren and rocky, it contains the most accessible fossil record of any state. That record spans more than a billion years of Earth’s history, though the last 550 million are the best represented, Irmis said; the museum alone has collected more than 5,000 new specimens in the last five years. “We’ve really focused on telling the story of Utah in the ancient past, and as such we’ve got some familiar things and a lot of stuff that’s on display nowhere else,” said Irmis.

Another highlight includes an 8,000-year-old coiled basket, the oldest directly dated coiled basket in the Americas. The small artifact was discovered at the edge of a looter’s pit at Cowboy Cave in Utah’s Colorado Plateau.

Other artifacts on display from the museum’s collection of 1.2 million objects include fossils, ceramics, weapons, moccasins, and jewelry. There is also a heliostat, which provides a real-time solar projection, as well as models of the geologic and hydrologic processes that shaped Utah’s landscape over time.

Kevin Fernlund, executive director of the Western History Association at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said older museums tried “to create these classical temples and great columns echoing the architecture of antiquity,” but with its combination of indoor and outdoor spaces and focus on Utah’s unique geography and topography, the new museum is “a magnification and amplification of what happened locally, and that’s pretty cool.”

The new building was designed by Ennead Architects, the firm behind the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Newseum in Washington, DC.

The museum is about three miles from downtown Salt Lake City and is also accessible by bike, though it’s an uphill ride. Less-enterprising cyclists can reach the facility by a combination of bike, light rail and free shuttle.

Two feet or a bike are all you’ll need to continue your discovery of Utah’s ancient past first-hand — the building backs up to two nature preserves with trails through the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains.

More from Itineraries: