Tuesday, February 21, 2012

layered: a review of the natural history museum of utah

approaching the foothills

one thing that slowly dawns on you after you've lived in utah for a while is how layered it is.  which is weird realization when your first impression of this place is more likely to one be of starkness.  but after you explore the mountains, the seemingly static and stagnant Utah Lake and Great Salt Lake,  and especially the redlands down south, you start to realize how much is going on here, how much has transpired here, and how much of it resides under the quiet and widespread surface of this place.  you have to dig a little, but once you do, it's often profound.

i'd heard raves about the new natural history museum of utah in salt lake, and was anxious to get there.  one friend said that you can be driving towards the building and looking straight at it, but not know it's there.  he's right.  it's architecturally integrated into the foothills and so does not stand out from it's environment.  i had the same experience of not realizing it was there until we were almost upon it.

the exhibits have a similar vibe.  it seems to take your eyes a while to adjust to all the layers of meaning and perspective built into each exhibit.  you might notice you're standing on a plexiglass floor looking down at a life-sized model of a portion of a paleontolgy dig.  then you realize that the assembled bones to your left are casts of the same dinosaurs remains displayed in the dig below you.  behind you, on the wall, is a life-sized image of a tree that shows you the scale of the long-necked herbivore--how very, very tall a 90 foot long dinosaur really is, and how tall the tree she eats from.  to the right you might see a map overlaid with a grid of the dinosaur bones in the dig you're standing on, which helps you really understand the complexity of the thirty-year dig that assembled the skeltons you're looking at.  just a few feet ahead, six scientists on six screens propound their six different theories of how the bones all arrived at the same quarry, and you can vote on what seems the most likely theory to you.  the little antechamber off the exhibit contains a digging box for kids to unearth models of these same dinosaur bones.

windows bring perspective to the exhibits inside

on the other wall hang skulls of the heads of a dozen or so dinosaurs, like a wall of prehistoric hunting trophies.

prehistoric hunting trophies
we spent an hour in this first exhibit, unsuccessfully trying to urge the kids onto the other exhibits and finally giving up.  the museum is like this-once you start exploring, you have a hard time feeling like you're finished.  the beginning and ending of each exhibit is seamless, so you can't quite tell where each one starts and ends.  that's not a criticism, but a strength, and a reflection on the nature of time and shifting environments and landscapes examined in the museum. the exhibits were narrow in scope, also not a criticism, but delve deep.  the nhmu is designed to be a very reflective space,  and because all specimens and subjects in the museum are from utah,  it's tightly focused.  but the profound plan of the museum and it's progressive approach to interactivity and design help you get an emotionally moving perspective on the vastness and depth of this small geographic area.  even the windows, which are stunning, help you to understand what you're looking at inside the museum as you gaze at the mountains (you can find out how they were formed in one room) or the lake (you can examine brine shrimp, learn about water levels in lake bonneville, or salinity and bacteria in another room).  one of the most distinctive things about the building is the way it brings the inside and the outside together.

we only got to take a cursory look at the first exhibit on the ancient people of the region before it was time to go.  i wished we had many more hours to explore, but we realized in the first exhibit that this was not a museum to rush through.  i'm sure we'll go again soon, so watch for review part two.

as we left, i was thinking more about the ground below and the sky above than when we entered, the multivalence of this deceptively simple landscape, and also about how thoughtful and well-considered was the integrated and subtle approach of this important new resource in our community.

p.s. legwear:  i'm wearing my thick black tights--they're making me feel safer as i had a horrible nightmare last night and have suffered a low-level anxiety all day.  plus i feel like i'm in a super tight place today--not taking full breaths, etc.  which is stupid of me, because i merely have the wrong perspective on things.  it's all bad perception/perspective on my part. 

inspiration:  full breaths

looking forward:  to having a better day tomorrow


  1. Lara! Gorgeous! Amelia and I hiked through the rain forest in the pouring rain to second beach. We were literally the only humans there and I was terrified of the thrashing ocean/end of the world. But it reminded me of the order of things and we wondered if the earth is our mother or the ocean. Not or, we thought, and. Earth and Ocean. Did you send tights to Eliza in the MTC? She is very grateful!!xo

    1. how i wish i was at la push with you. that place is magic. i think kindra sent the tights. miss you. xxoo

  2. Lara, the museum should pay you and use this post for their marketing materials. I know I want to get on a plan right now and fly out there. Where is it exactly? It looks as hard to get to as Spiral Jetty. I can't wait to go someday!

    1. thanks, julie. you SHOULD get on a plane right now and come out here. the museum is very easy to get to--it's visually tricky, like i said--hidden in plane sight. it's just at the end of wakara way--you know where the research parks are near the u?