The Utah Natural History Museum is the caretaker of 1.2 million objects from the fields of paleontology, archeology, ethnology, entomology, vertebrate zoology, mineralogy, botany and malacology. Not only does the museum work to preserve these precious artifacts, it also actively works to study their collection and educate residents, schoolchildren and visitors. The new museum was built to house a significant portion of the collection and to provide interactive exhibits about the natural history of the region. Back in 2005, Todd Schliemann of Ennead was selected to come up with the design for the museum, which was recently completed at the end of 2011. Todd Schliemann and Don Weinreich led the design team with the help of GSBS Architects, Big-D Construction and Design Workshop for landscape architecture.
To come up with a design that represented the physical geography of Utah without being too literal, Todd Schliemann came for an extensive visit to tour the landscape. What he saw blew him away. He fell in love with the Grand Staircase, Escalante and Range Creek – an amazing archeological site kept hidden away and perfectly preserved by a careful rancher. His tour of the state greatly influenced the overall design, which is a cross between a huge cliff and a precious mineral. The faceted volume is covered in shimmering stripes of copper and is buried deep into the hillside as though it were a giant rock that has emerged from the earth. Board-formed concrete brings to mind stratified rock and native landscaping was designed to make it seem as though the building were part of the landscape and not something that just popped up.
Visitors approach the building from the bottom floor and enter in through a grand canyon reminiscent of the many such features within the state. The canyon serves as a multi-purpose space and can be transformed for a variety of events when needed. On normal days it serves as an extension of the museum’s cafe and gift shop. A giant curio exhibit gives you a glimpse of the hundreds of thousands of items the museum has collected. From the canyon, visitors ascend to the highest and fifth floor where they can tour an exhibit on the Native Peoples of Utah and take a walk out to the rooftop deck. Here visitors can check out views of the city and surrounding mountain ranges as well as see the rooftop solar photovoltaic system in action.
After the top floor, visitors descend into the main exhibition space, where they can play with rocks, watch a real ant colony, see the evolution of man through skulls and see dioramas of native habitats. From here, the exhibition space steps down, just like the geology of Utah to explain how the state evolved over time. For lovers of dinosaurs, this is where it gets really exciting, and you can see your favorite giant reptile’s remains on display. Utah is a paleontologist’s dream and each year new remains are found and become part of the museum’s collection. You can even witness a recreation of a dig site, which shows how the bones were found and even see fossilized skin!
Classrooms for children’s field trips and activities are integrated right into the exhibition space and not relegated to some dark basement. Next to the dinosaur exhibit is a real live research lab where archeologist and paleontologists work during the day to study bones and objects they collect from dig sites. A flexible exhibition room on the north side of the building provides extra space for traveling and temporary exhibits. And then the remainder of the 42,000 sq ft building is used as a repository for a large part of the museum’s collection.
The Utah Natural History Museum is a caretaker and steward of the land and was adamant that their new home be representative of that vision. The museum is currently undergoing building monitoring and verification in anticipation of its LEED Gold certification. Sustainable strategies were an integral part of the building’s design, but they aren’t terribly flashy or obvious. As Todd Schliemann told us, “There’s really no need to advertise you’re green. If you’re green – you’re green. We incorporated a lot of these things all along.”
Buried deep into the hillside, the earth helps to moderate the building’s temperature in order to minimize heating and cooling. Energy use is also reduced through a tight building envelope, high performance mechanical systems, energy efficient lighting, and a radiant heating and cooling system. The 1,400 panel rooftop photovoltaic system was installed right before Christmas and is expected to produce about a quarter of the building’s energy. Around the edges of the roof, native vegetation was planted to help infiltrate stormwater. Rainwater is collected for irrigation and stormwater is directed through pervious paving and infiltrates into the ground.
As for materials, the copper for the exterior was donated by a museum sponsor, Kennecott Copper Mine, which is located on the other side of the Salt Lake valley. Fly ash was used in the concrete, which not only helped reduce the impact of the material, but also gave it a wonderful velvety color. Stone removed during excavation was reused in gabion baskets to create retaining walls around the building. Recycled and other local materials were also used extensively for the building’s construction.
The layout of the exhibition space gives the impression that you just went on a hike as you traverse and zig-zag back and forth. Daylighting in museums is a tricky subject as UV light can damage precious artifacts, but key window placements were created to allow visitors views of the surrounding mountains and let in daylight where it was safe. Other spaces of the museum, like the canyon and conference rooms enjoy ample daylighting.
At the end of the tour, you’ll feel as if you went on a journey and likely want to go back – whether to learn more or just to play. And while we know a lot about our history, geography, and heritage, there is still so much more to discover and learn. The Utah Natural History Museum is dedicated to all of this and should surely be a stop if you ever visit Salt Lake City. When questioned as to what his favorite part of the museum’s collection was, Schliemann told us, “The land of Utah is actually the most spectacular part of the collection.”
Images ©Bridgette Meinhold