Published: March 23, 2012
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SALT LAKE CITY — All museums are temples of sorts, monuments to collectors or cultures, declarations of identity, gathering places for tribute. But museums of natural history have an even more distinctive stature. Their focus is not human history, measured in centuries, but natural history, measured in eons. And their subject is not a particular culture and its accomplishments, but a world that seems to stand beyond culture altogether. Natural history museums seek their ground in the earth itself. That is one reason that the Natural History Museum of Utah, which opened last fall in a new $102 million, 17-acre home in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountain Range, has such a powerful impact. Here, at Salt Lake City’s edge, above the geological shoreline of the ancient Lake Bonneville, the earth is vividly present: seen in nearby snow-covered mountains, in the winding hiking and biking path that runs past the museum, and in the untouched land above. Most natural history museums are in urban centers, offering reminders of a distant natural world, but this one is housed in the realm it surveys; it is at home.
The museum is associated with the University of Utah, and for more than 40 years, as its director, Sarah B. George, explained to me, it had inadequate quarters for research and collections. A new building was needed, and a combination of public and private funds encouraged ambitious planning.
So when the principal designers were selected, they toured Utah, whose landscapes include winding canyons, otherworldly rock formations and looming stone cliffs.
The chief architect, Todd Schliemann, who designed the Rose Center at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, and whose firm, Ennead Architects, teamed up with GSBS Architects for the project, said: “This whole state is architecture. How am I supposed to compete with this?”...