The Natural History Museum of Utah has been described as “a superior museum” by the New York Times. Its location on a 17-acre site above the Bonneville Shoreline Trail and at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains certainly contributes to its appeal. As Edward Rothstein writes, “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 building itself reflects its natural setting. With an exterior “skin” made of copper (Utah’s state mineral), native plants growing on the rooftop, and “a voluminous central public space” known as the Canyon, it is the state of Utah in miniature. Ultimately, because of its location and design the museum “places humans at the nexus of environmental stewardship.”
“Past Worlds” Exhibit
The main attraction at the Natural History Museum of Utah is the “Past Worlds” exhibit that presents 200 million years of Utah’s past. Imposing dinosaur bones feature prominently, as well as “displays that capture plant and animal diversity, sights, sounds and smells [of] long lost ecosystems.”
While I have previously seen the “Past Worlds” exhibit, I wanted to get a fresh perspective and see it through children’s eyes. So, this week I invited my friend, Suzanne, to take her family to the museum to check out the exhibit. Suzanne is a Utah native who grew up in St. George, shadowed by red sandstone cliffs and black basalt ridges. After finishing college, she spent a few years back east and now lives in the Salt Lake Valley with her husband and three kids: Tennyson (age 9), Tait (age 6), and Julie (age 4). They are an adventurous family that enjoys outings into the natural world. Since this was their first time at the museum, I was curious to see what each member of her family would like about the “Past Worlds” exhibit.
When Suzanne lived back east she visited the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History several times, so she naturally compared that experience to her experience at the Natural History Museum of Utah. Upon entering the “Past Worlds” exhibit, she was immediately impressed by the “functioning paleontology lab with scientists and paleontologists working on fossils. I thought this was cool,” she told me, “because the Smithsonian has this too, but no one is *ever* in it.”
Suzanne’s kids were drawn to the massive Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, which they loved. When Julie (age 4) saw the Tyrannosaurus Rex skull across the way she was initially taken aback, exclaiming, “This is scary,” before quickly losing her fear to fascination. After passing through the glass-floored dinosaur dig, Tait (age 6) “really liked the fake crocodile and fake eggs.”
Two interactive displays were particularly appealing to the kids. First, they all thought the squirt-a-scents, where you press a button to enjoy a prehistoric scent, were “so funny.” Second, the spinnable wheels that describe the dinosaurs and animals that are found during a particular time period and location were a big hit with Tennyson (age 9), who “was able to get the full educational use” out of them. Julie and Tait, on the other hand, “just liked to spin the wheels and see what animals they would get.”
The dinosaur skeletons were “the most magical part of the exhibit.” The kids “loved any dinosaur that was big.” The Brachiosaurus, with its impressively long neck, was “a huge hit.” While there were several interactive displays and activities nearby, the kids “really just liked looking at all the dinosaurs. It was fun for them to see the actual sizes of the various dinosaurs next to each other to put everything into perspective.”
Finally, the kids “absolutely loved, loved, loved the giant ‘crocodile'” and Julie loved the “little baby crocodile” next to it. The woolly mammoth, the long-horned paleo-bison, and the giant ground sloth were also engaging for everyone.
In evaluating their overall “Past Worlds” experience, Suzanne once again made a comparison to the Smithsonian:
“I think it was an impressive exhibit because of the sheer quantity of fossils. I went to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum a lot when I was in DC and I wouldn’t be surprised if this exhibit had more specimens. There were some really classic dinosaurs, but there were some really funky looking ones, too, that I had never heard of or seen before today, and I have watched a lot of Dinosaur Train with my kids.”
She also found “Past Worlds” to be the most “contemplative” exhibit at the museum. She explained, “Even though they are dead, the bones speak for themselves as you absorb the enormity and spectacle of these animals that once lived here. Time is the only thing keeping you from standing face-to-face and it is sobering.”
The Natural History Museum of Utah is a world-class experience for anyone interested in the natural world and especially those who enjoy Utah’s natural wonders. As Suzanne’s experience shows, the “Past Worlds” exhibit is as good or better than anything you’ll see at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. My own experience matches this sentiment, as I found the Smithsonian museums rather dated. “Past Worlds” has something to offer everyone, as its design allows for personalized, age-appropriate engagement. Immersing ourselves in an exhibit like “Past Worlds” is a healthy reminder that we are a part of this world and have a responsibility to act accordingly.