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Museum makeover: Natural History Museum of Utah Rio Tinto Center will open Nov. 18

Published: Sunday, Nov. 13 2011 9:28 a.m. MST

An allosaurus on display in the Past Worlds gallery.An allosaurus on display in the Past Worlds gallery.

Stuart Ruckman

What's been found in Utah over the years?

Dinosaurs, fossils and the famous lake stink.

These and other ancient and modern wonders of Utah will be spotlighted in the opening of the new Natural History Museum of Utah Rio Tinto Center located on the University of Utah campus.

The six-year project will open on Friday, Nov. 18, with free admission celebrating the grand opening.

"The new building represents the rich and natural history of Utah," Patti Carpenter, the museum's public relations director, said. "It's just incredible, and it's shown in the 10 different galleries."

The galleries, in a stair-step layout, aim to allow more immersion, interaction and learning. The museum houses 1.2 million objects from the state and region, including moccasins worn by Utah's first people, insect species and gems and minerals found in Utah and around the world. Although these are the same collections and artifacts from the old museum, the new Rio Tinto Center will evoke different experiences.

"The museum is filled with interactive exhibits — it's not just text on the wall and objects in the case," Sarah B. George, executive director of the museum, said. "You can build a pot, crank a pump and make the Salt Lake Valley fill with water, see where the shoreline of Lake Bonneville was and see a real time image of the sun as the day progresses. Just lots and lots of interactive programs."

The Great Salt Lake exhibit maps out the lake on the floor, showing how its shores have changed over the years. To highlight where the lake currently is, tiles with gel in them were used, so it looks to visitors like they are stepping on moving water.

At a preview for museum members on Thursday, Julie Fiscus, of Park City, said, "I think it's fantastic. I just can't keep my mouth together. (I'm) in awe …. I can hardly wait for our grandchildren to come."

Beth Chardack, of Salt Lake City, said, "It's gorgeous. They did a really nice job. It's so much bigger than the other museum. It's all state-of-the-art. It's beautiful."

Kelly Ladue, of Draper, said, "Love it! It's even better than I thought it was going to be … The interactive activities here are amazing."

The new galleries include the Utah Sky View Terrace, on the fourth level of the museum with an indoor-outdoor interpretive space, where George explained that three mountain ranges, weather and atmosphere could be seen. Other galleries in the museum include native voices, life, land, first peoples, lake (Great Salt Lake), past worlds, Utah futures and minerals.

For young visitors, there is Our Backyard Gallery, which includes a water table, real insects to look at, objects to touch and dress up.

The immersion does not only include visual and audio, but smell too.

"There is smell in some of the galleries where it is appropriate," George said. "For example, there is a little exhibit, 'What is the lake stink?' and you can push a button for the smell of the lake stink."

In addition to the new indoor galleries, the NHMU contains outdoor exhibits, including one visitors can walk through before entering the museum. George explained it as a walk through geological time, starting in the parking lot with the Big Bang and ending with the modern age at the entrance of the museum, equipped with steel metal exhibits.

Along with the new building, there are new programs such as architecture guides, new gallery activities and an archeological dig that consist of volunteers showing how archeologists do their work. These and other programs aim to have visitors engaged in what makes up Utah's natural history.