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Tom Smart, Deseret News
The Leonardo, a contemporary museum, located in the building that housed the Salt Lake City Library for 50 years, has now been open for a year Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
We're a science center with a twist, in the sense that we're adding art and technology and creativity to our scientific topics. —Executive director Alexandra Hesse

SALT LAKE CITY — An estimated 75,000 people visited The Leonardo in the science, technology and art museum's first year, a number that falls far short of other nearby city attractions.

The museum's executive director, Alexandra Hesse, said the number isn't a disappointment.

Clark Planetarium regularly counts about 300,000 visitors a year. The Natural History Museum of Utah has had more than 330,000 visitors since the grand opening of its new Rio Tinto Center on Nov. 17, 2011.

"It's like comparing apples and oranges," Hesse said, noting that competing attractions have had years to attract an audience.

Since Oct. 8, 2011, The Leonardo has attempted to define its identity with a wide range of exhibits. The 75,000 visitors for the first year is in line with advance expectations for The Leonardo, Hesse said.

"This is really what we were basing our assumptions on, and we've been meeting those," Hesse said. She predicts The Leonardo will grow substantially in coming years as more and more Utahns learn what it has to offer.

Salt Lake City residents Mindy and Colby Tyler have taken their two children to The Leonardo at least five times because of the interactive exhibits.

"They're learning, but they don't really know it," Mindy Tyler said as her kids created stop-motion cartoons in The Leonardo's animation lab. "We'd much rather come here than someplace that's just silly video games. This is actually helping their brains do more."

The Leonardo's identity is difficult to sum up in a word or two. It takes at least three — science, art and technology.

"We're a science center with a twist, in the sense that we're adding art and technology and creativity to our scientific topics," Hesse said.

The animation lab, known as "Render," is the most popular continuing exhibit. Kids and adults create short movies, guided by animator-in-residence Natalie Knauer.

"I love this department because it's always full of giggles and discovery," Knauer said. "Everyone's like, 'Look what I did,' and, 'I didn't know I could make this,' and, 'Check it out. It's just like in the movies.' "

One of The Leonardo's strategies is to attract visitors by changing exhibits often, rather than keeping a permanent collection on display.

"We have brought in eight new exhibits," Hesse said. "Some of them have already come and gone. So you would have already missed them if you only showed up at opening day and today."

Exhibits include a genetics lab and a "tinkering" lab, where kids learn to create mechanical toys. A section on made-in-Utah inventions includes the Jarvik7 artificial heart and the ever-popular Frisbee invented by the late Walter Morrison of Sevier County.

For the next three months, visitors can pay extra for a visiting exhibit called "Da Vinci — The Genius." It celebrates the man who inspired the museum, Leonardo Da Vinci. It features numerous machines and weapons built full-size in modern times from designs drawn by Da Vinci in his famous notebooks.

The exhibit also includes a section that examines in microscopic detail Da Vinci's most famous painting, the Mona Lisa.

"What we are trying to do is to inspire minds to be as curious as Leonardo Da Vinci's mind and to be as innovative and as creative," Hesse said.

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To attract more visitors, The Leonardo lowered the basic admission cost from $14 to $9 midway through its first year. Museum officials worried the cost was keeping people away.

The opening of the Da Vinci exhibit also boosted attendance significantly, even though a combined ticket for the museum and the Da Vinci exhibit costs $19.50.

Hesse acknowledges that a stronger marketing effort in the museum's first year might have brought in more visitors. But she said feedback from visitors has been positive.

She said 2,500 people have become members of the museum "because they have liked our experience."

Email: hollenhorst@desnews.com