Governor Huntsman, Community Representatives Break Ground on New LEED Gold Certified Building for the Utah Museum of Natural History

Architect and exhibit designers create a powerful new architectural identity for the State and an integrated visitor experience that links the building, the exhibitions and the collections with the culture and natural history of Utah

July 29, 2008 (Salt Lake City, Utah) -More than 600 guests will join Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., representatives from the State, University of Utah, donor community, and the Utah Museum of Natural History to celebrate the groundbreaking for the museum’s new home, The Rio Tinto Center.  The official ceremony will take place at the new site, located southeast of Red Butte Garden and Arboretum, on University land that overlooks the Salt Lake Valley. The event will be held from 8 to 10 am.

Participating in the celebration will be Keynote speaker Governor Jon M. Huntsman, Jr., President Michael K. Young from the University, Clark Giles from the Emma Eccles Foundation, Tony Schetzsle from the National Park Service, Senate President John Valentine, House Speaker Greg Curtis, Andrew Harding, president and CEO of Kennecott Utah Copper, and Executive Director Sarah George from the Utah Museum of Natural History.

As a symbol of the Museum’s statewide mission, representatives of communities across Utah will join the speakers in the official groundbreaking ceremony.  These individuals include Mary Jane Page, school teacher from Neola; Mona Woolsey, school teacher from Cedar City; Duane and Cassie Houston, elementary students from Neola; Dave Jennings, son of the Museum’s founding director Jesse Jennings; Patty Timbimboo Madsen, representing the Northwest Band of Shoshone from Plymouth and Lora Tom, representing the Piute tribe from Cedar City, and both serve on the Museum’s Indian Advisory Committee and Ben Chan, U of U biology graduate student, among others.

The Utah Museum of Natural History at The Rio Tinto Center is to open to the public in winter 2010-2011. The new 161,000 gross square-foot building, designed by Polshek Partnership Architects with Gillies Stranksy Brems Smith Architects, and exhibits designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, will double the size of its current facility. The new building offers future visitors an uncommon indoor/outdoor experience with spectacular views of Utah’s landscapes.  The new building will provide much needed space to exhibit, interpret and study an extraordinary collection of artifacts as well as explore and articulate, for the general public, the delicate balance of life on earth and its natural history. More than 1.2 million objects will be displayed and housed in the new facility. It will also provide advanced research facilities and establish a venue for undergraduate and graduate education at the University of Utah.

The creation of the fully integrated site, building and exhibit design depended on a uniquely collaborative process.  At the start, the project team embarked on several week-long investigatory journeys across Utah, exploring its natural sites and visiting with its people. Yielding an extensive database of impressions, observations and attributes that define Utah and the cultures of its many regions, this shared experience led to a dynamic collaboration among the Museum, the architects, exhibit designer, the University, the State of Utah, and the community.

A compelling visitor experience, which educates, excites and inspires curiosity and inquiry, begins with the site itself. “We have designed a building in which the architecture is a metaphor for the landscape and the rich culture of Utah,” said Design Partner Todd Schliemann of Polshek Partnership.  As visitors approach the building from parking areas, they enjoy sweeping views of both the spectacular landscape of the Wasatch Foothills and the Museum.  Conceived as an abstract extension and transformation of the land, the building rests on a series of terraces that lay along the contours of the site. Its materials – concrete, stone, copper – reinforce the role of the architecture in illuminating Utah’s rich geological and mineralogical history. 

The Museum’s entrance hall, which includes spaces for ticketing and checking coats as well as an information station and the restored WPA Barrier Canyon Mural, is designed to heighten anticipation for the experience to follow.  To this end, natural light, filtering from above, draws the visitor to a stair that leads up to a canyon-like public space. “The heart of the Museum is the canyon, a soaring space that inspires understanding of the natural world and our place within it, a space that underscores the museum’s mission,” said Todd Schliemann. Immediately ahead as the visitor arrives on the canyon floor is the collections wall, a multi-story glass vitrine, which displays and interprets artifacts found in the Museum’s collection. Within the canyon, bridges and vertical circulation organize the visitor sequence, views south across the basin expand the museum-goer experience, and a grand vertical scale uplifts and inspires.

Shafts of sunlight penetrate the apex of the canyon, flooding the space with natural light and beckoning visitors to enter the galleries. Their journey can begin in many ways, through the carefully connected variety of exhibits; probably the most popular route will start at the top of the building.  Within the exhibit spaces and the labs, framed views of natural landscape features outside serve both as elements of the exhibit experience and to reinforce the connection between the interior and exterior of the building. “An interior terraced landscape sequences the museum’s exhibit galleries, and as the visitor traverses from upper to lower levels, an integrated and compelling exhibit experience unfolds,” said Todd Schliemann. From the three-story canyon, visitors and museum staff may also access the temporary exhibit halls, the museum store and café, collections storage, administration and building support areas as well as outdoor interpretive landscapes.

Approximately 37,500 square feet of new permanent exhibits explore topics ranging from Utah’s ancient ecosystems and Utah’s first peoples to cutting-edge science in the areas of plant biogeography and genetics. “What our children get to learn in our museums is what we revere about human accomplishments and about our understanding of nature’s glories,” said Ralph Appelbaum, the exhibit planner and designer. “Together we’ll celebrate the stewardship of one of the most beautiful places on Earth. We’ll instill the confidence in visitors that they can comprehend complex ideas.” 

Representing the natural history and native culture of Utah and intended to enhance visitors’ appreciation and understanding of the natural world around them and their stewardship of it, the museum’s exhibits are organized in a series of eight thematic exhibit areas and three embedded learning labs: Utah Sky, an indoor-outdoor interpretive space; Native Voices, designed in consultation with Utah’s Indian communities; Life, a celebration of Utah’s biological diversity (with an adjacent Naturalist’s Lab); The Land, an interpretation of Utah’s mountain, basin and range, and plateau regions; First Peoples, a look to the state’s prehistoric people, (with an adjacent Cave Lab); Lake, a narrative look at this massive body of water in the midst of a vast desert; Past Worlds, a depiction of a range of Utah’s ancient environments (with an adjacent Earth Lab); and Utah Futures, a place to explore pressing contemporary issues with local and global implications for the future. 

Media is integrated into the exhibitions to enhance the visitor experience. Visitors encounter a wide range of media moments, from reflective sit-down experiences and multiplayer interactives to ambient soundscapes. Original and historic footage, animation and time-lapse photography combine with natural sounds, narration, music and sound bites to excite the senses.

A critical element of the new building design is environmental responsibility, which is seen in the Museum’s commitment to LEED Gold certification. LEED is the acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a program of the United States Green Building Council that assesses a range of factors from the building’s site utilization to indoor environmental quality. The design for the new Utah Museum of Natural History minimizes the building’s disruption to the spectacular site, employing high performance mechanical systems, recycled materials and materials indigenous to the region, sophisticated water retention and management strategies, and native plant material as well as restoring trails.

Media Contacts For This Story

director of public relations, Natural History Museum of Utah
Office Phone: 801-585-6369
Cell Phone: 801-707-6138