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Brian Nicholson
Leonardo da Vinci's work and life inspired the name of The Leonardo museum, an integrated science and art museum.
You see yourself differently after you’ve done something that you didn’t think you could do. We always planned on having these labs, but we didn’t know the power that they’d have for the visitors. —Alexandra Hesse, executive director for The Leonardo

Editor's note: First in a series highlighting arts organizations around Utah.

What's in a name?

For The Leonardo, a museum located in downtown Salt Lake City, it's much more than a title. It all has to do with Leonardo da Vinci.

“I think da Vinci kind of embodies, really, this idea that we as humans are not compartmentalized ... our lives touch everything,” said Alexandra Hesse, executive director for The Leonardo. “He never, I don’t think, woke up and said, ‘Today I’ll be an artist; I’ll paint the Mona Lisa,’ or ‘Tomorrow I’ll be an engineer, and I’ll invent a war machine.' "

Even before the vision for what it would be was nailed down, the Salt Lake City museum, which first opened temporarily in 2005, adopted the working title of “The Leonardo.” The name was chosen in a meeting early in the museum’s development, said Lisa Davis, media and public relations director for The Leonardo.

“They understood that he wasn’t just an artist or just a scientist, but this coming together in his own mind and his own living, out of this just incredible way of being, created this level of creativity and this level of thinking and output,” Davis said.

Leonardo's legacy helps explain the museum's vision and mission.

“We have a mission to inspire creativity and innovation, to really get people to see the world and think and to be as innovative as Leonardo da Vinci, our namesake, was," Hesse said. "That’s why the name and the mission are kind of really perfect."

Rather than focus directly on either the arts or the sciences, The Leonardo presents them together and encourages visitors to merge them in their individual pursuits.

When it comes to inspiring innovation, Hesse said, “We do this by giving people real literacy and keys in what we call the STEAM area: science, technology, engineering, arts and math. It’s a twist on STEM. ... The 'arts,' really, is what turns just an acronym into something that’s a real engine.”

Realizing the vision

While museums traditionally begin with a clear concept and a blueprint for a building, The Leonardo began with a host of ideas and a repurposed space.

A multidisciplinary center had been under consideration by civic leaders for years, and when the new Salt Lake Main Library was being built, three art and science groups were selected to share the old, soon-to-be-vacant library building at 209 E. 500 South.

Over time, a single organization was born. In 2008, The Leonardo hosted “Body Worlds” before it even had a lease on the building. The experience of hosting that large traveling exhibit taught the staff many lessons, including how to organize volunteers and manage crowds. Another lesson of primary significance was the need for temporary walls within the museum to accommodate exhibits of all shapes and sizes.

A $10 million bond financed the renovation of the old library building between September 2009 and August 2011. Salt Lake City taxpayers agreed to increase their property taxes over a certain number of years to fund the renovation. As a private nonprofit, The Leonardo raised an additional $10 million from individuals, corporations and other donors to create exhibits and programs, hire staff and fund the museum's ongoing operations.

“There are a lot of people we would have to credit with being where we are right now,” Hesse said.

The Leonardo opened to the public on Oct. 8, 2011.

The Leonardo currently leases its building from the city and is funded by a variety of sources, such as ticket sales, event rentals, its cafe and fundraising. Additionally, the museum continues to apply for government grants on a “project-by-project basis,” Davis explained.

Audience expectations

Davis described Utah as having “a culture of culture.”

Jann Haworth, pop artist and The Leonardo's creative director, agreed.

“For a town the size of Salt Lake to have as many independent theaters, that’s really weird and unusual and wonderful,” she said. “There’s this kind of expectation of the arts. And I happen to know that Utah was the first state in the nation to have an arts council. Well, that’s bedrock, you know, and if that’s our bedrock, we’re in the right place for this museum.”

The museum was unlike anything already offered in Salt Lake City, and Hesse said it was “going to fill a big hole.”

The museum offers many hands-on activities. Haworth said participation in them provides visitors with “mind tools” that can be used to approach the exhibits and topics being covered.

“You’re presenting contemporary topics, but you’re also giving ways of analysis or of building something that might make change,” she said.

Haworth said this allows the museum to cover twice the territory and offer more than just “collections of old stuff."

“People expect more now,” Haworth said. “They expect to be able to interact with things and be a part of the museum in a different way.”

Learning labs

The hands-on activities come in the form of interactive exhibits and labs. The museum’s commitment to the labs is permanent, Hesse said, although the programming in them changes.

Upstairs is The Leonardo's animation and digital media lab, “Render,” where visitors can make their own stop-motion short films.

Time spent in the "Tinkering Garage," the engineering lab, making little rubber-band-powered cars or radio circuits, can expose people to subjects they may have previously had little interest in, Davis said.

“You see yourself differently after you’ve done something that you didn’t think you could do,” Hesse said. “We always planned on having these labs, but we didn’t know the power that they’d have for the visitors.”

For "Lab @ Leo," the museum hosts artists-in-residence to show their work and work process and to speak and interact with visitors.

The labs have hosted, among other artists, a photographer, a violin maker and a Nike shoe designer. Connecting people to artists and experts is one of the museum's goals.

“We try to unpick that idea that the people who make art are kind of separate and different, and to remind people that the 20th century kind of redefined what art or making things is all about, and that the field is open to everybody," Haworth said. "So it’s a gateway, if you like, into confidence."

Diverse displays

The Leonardo also features several different kinds of exhibits. Some have been developed and created by the museum, while others are traveling exhibits of different sizes, such as the large "Body Worlds" exhibition or the smaller “Green Revolution” exhibit from the Smithsonian.

When large traveling exhibits are on display, the museum shows less from its own exhibits.

Selecting exhibits can be complex with the different requirements for size and security. The exhibits also must fit The Leonardo’s mission.

“It can take half a year to coordinate exhibits,” Davis said. “We’re always working in the future.”

Currently on display at The Leonardo is the exhibit "Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times." It features more than 500 artifacts, including fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls and a stone from the Western (Wailing) Wall.

“The stone from the Western Wall, that thing is amazing,” Davis said. “Whatever comes with these kind of ancient artifacts, and the journey they have been on and the stories that they tell, it’s special.”

The flexibility inside The Leonardo's building, due to its temporary walls, helped qualify the museum to host the exhibit.

“The Dead Sea Scrolls won’t go any farther west than Salt Lake City because they don’t have the space,” Davis said.

She emphasized that people interested in seeing the current exhibit should not procrastinate their visit.

“It’s very unlikely that we’ll be able to extend this exhibit,” she said. “There are a certain number of light hours that the Scrolls can actually be exposed to light, and so once we’re done with those light hours, it goes.”

The Scrolls will then go into a vault and be unavailable for viewing by anyone for at least five years, Hesse said. Because of the lighting restrictions, the Scroll fragments currently on display will end their run on Feb. 5 and be replaced by 10 different scroll fragments.

Along with the traveling exhibit is another exhibit that explains Utah's connection to the scholarship surrounding the scrolls. Hesse said BYU has the largest body of Dead Sea Scrolls scholars outside of Israel.

“This exhibit is just trying to tell Utahns about what’s going on down here,” she said.

For "Dead Sea Scrolls," the directors of The Leonardo wanted to create local connections. They enlisted BYU to help put together a lecture program featuring many experts on the Scrolls.

Museum guests should be generous when they plan the amount of time they will spend in the exhibit, Hesse said.

“I think that there is such a special feeling to be in the presence of these things from that place and that time, that you want to really take your time and experience it and not really shove through," she said.

"Dead Sea Scrolls" is scheduled to end April 27. After the scrolls leave, the museum will focus on the different attributes of STEAM, Haworth said. Exhibits covering the topic areas of nutrition, light and water are also in the works, as well as more hands-on activities.

A new traveling exhibit for the summer will be announced in the “fairly near future,” along with a new set of original Leonardo exhibits, Davis said.

Additional programs

Along with its exhibits, The Leonardo offers a lecture series, film series, book club, and other special programming and events.

Davis said there is also real value in The Leonardo’s being able to bring in exhibits and lecturers that people might otherwise have to travel across the country to see.

“We have so many great ways of engaging with that one exhibit, that you could come two or three times a month through the entire run of the exhibit and have a different experience every single time," Davis said. "And that’s how we’re designed, no matter what is here."

While a lot of adults wait for their grandkids to come to town before making a visit, Davis said, the museum is excellent for adults.

“We have programs in the evenings, you can just come … go to the exhibit, have dinner, listen to an awesome talk, watch a movie and have an incredible date night,” Davis said. “Our ‘Render’ lab, the digital media and animation? Awesome date night for young people, seriously. You make an animated short with someone, you really get to know that person.”

The museum also has an educational outreach program, “Leo on Wheels,” that has been traveling for eight years, predating the opening of the museum, Hesse said. The program, which travels to middle schools, focuses on science education by providing students with hands-on experiences that tie to the schools’ core curriculum.

Desire to inspire

While the museum's direction has been decided, the expression of its vision is constantly evolving.

“Part of the reason we are always changing and will continue to change is because we’re trying to continue to address what’s happening right now and today, and how and why that’s relevant,” Davis said.

Looking ahead, The Leonardo’s directors plan to continue offering valuable experiences and fostering inspiration within the community.

“Maybe this idea is that every one of us wants to be inspired, and of course there’s many things that we all do to that end,” Hesse said.

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“But I think the reason to come is to find something. There’s something here that’s going to inspire you, and it doesn’t matter the age. And that’s the idea: Let us be the place you keep visiting, again and again, to find some inspiration.”

If you go ...

What: The Leonardo

Where: 209 E. 500 South, Salt Lake City

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday

Tickets: $9 general admission for The Leonardo's original exhibits; $23.95 general admission for "Dead Sea Scrolls" exhibit; discounts for seniors, youths, children, military and students; annual memberships available

Information: 801-531-9800 or theleonardo.org

Email: rbrutsch@deseretnews.com, wbutters@deseretnews.com