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Natural History Museum Of Utah: Salt Lake City’s Hidden Gem

Are you planning on taking an RV trip to Utah anytime soon?  If Salt Lake City is on your agenda, then the Natural History Museum of Utah should be on your list of places to visit.  The museum serves as a research arm of the University of Utah, as well as a beautifully designed public museum. Originally housed at the University when it was founded in 1963, the Natural History Museum opened at its present location in November of 2011 and showcases over 1.3 million objects.

The Rio Tinto Center

Salt Lake City’s Natural History Museum is housed in the unique Rio Tinto Center, which is built on terraces carved into the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains.  If you’re an architecture fan or a person who is intrigued by innovative methods of green building design, then this destination is right up your alley.

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Natural History Museum of Utah
Rio Tinto Center – Natural History Museum of Utah. Photo courtesy of Utah Museum of Natural History Press Kit

Perhaps the most noticeable feature of the building’s exterior is the large copper band that makes up a good deal of the building’s facade. Donated by the nearby Rio Tinto Kennecott Bingham Canyon mine, the copper showcases the mining resources found throughout the state which also include gold, zinc, silver, lead, beryllium, and molybdenum.  The overall layout of the museum reflects the numerous slot canyons found in the state and is lit to a large degree by natural light.

The Rio Tinto Center received a gold level designation by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a worldwide green building certification program.  Among its numerous green features are the permeable parking lot pavement that allows rainwater to pass through to the ground below, a solar panel installation that is one of the largest in the state of Utah, and a planted roof.


If hiking or mountain biking appeals to you, the Museum serves as an ideal starting point for a hike along the 100-mile long Bonneville Shoreline Trail, which passes directly in front of the Museum’s front door.  The Bonneville Shoreline Trail traces the upper shoreline of ancient glacial Lake Bonneville, which once covered much of what is now the Western United States.  The famous Great Salt Lake, a remnant of Lake Bonneville, is the subject of a major exhibit in the museum.

Museum Overview

The permanent exhibits encompass the earth, sky, and everything in between.  The clever layout of the museum works its way from the lower floors which showcase geology and ancient life including a fantastic dinosaur exhibit, through the middle floors that highlight people and biological diversity, finally reaching the upper floor that houses the Sky exhibit which teaches about astronomy, weather, and climate.

The Special Exhibits Gallery features changing exhibits that have included everything from the Vikings to the “Power of Poison”.  You can find past and present exhibits here.  Although it is not technically an exhibit, the Paleo Prep Lab where fossils are stored and prepared by paleontologists is visible from the second floor.

Paleo Prep Lab - Natural History Museum of Utah
Paleo Prep Lab – Natural History Museum of Utah – Photo by Life, Other Than

Museum Highlights

Choosing highlights from the Natural History Museum of Utah is challenging because as you are wandering through it, every exhibit is as good as the last.  That disclaimer notwithstanding, there are a few exhibits that truly captivate the visitor.

The wildly popular “Past Worlds” exhibit is one such example.  Hundreds of millions of years of ancient life are brought together in this captivating display of dinosaur skeleton reproductions.  As you peruse this gallery, keep an eye out for school children who will be scurrying about pencil and paper in hand solving mysteries of life during the Mesozoic Era.

Past Worlds Exhibit - Natural History Museum of Utah
Past Worlds Exhibit – Natural History Museum of Utah – Photo by Life, Other Than

“Land” is another fascinating exhibit.  Here you can learn about Utah’s famous rock formations in the three main physiographic regions of the state:  the Colorado Plateau, the Basin Range, and the Middle Rocky Mountains.

Hands-on exhibits include plate tectonics, earthquakes, and the very nifty display that demonstrates erosion.  It is a tub of sorts filled with sand, water, and rocks.  You can build up sand walls and then turn on the water and watch them erode.  Well, you might not be able to do it yourself as the kids will have occupied every square inch around the display.  However, watching them get their hands dirty while learning about erosion is just as entertaining.

Lands Exhibit - Natural History Museum of Utah
Lands Exhibit – University of Utah Museum of Natural History. Photo by Tom Smart, courtesy of Utah Museum of Natural History Press Kit

The “Gems and Minerals” exhibit also stands out.  Although it could use a bit more information about the individual items in the collection, the vast colors that the Earth can produce on display here are truly breathtaking.  Hopefully they have plans to expand this exhibit in the future.

Minerals and Gems Exhibit - Natural History Museum of Utah
Minerals and Gems Exhibit – Natural History Museum of Utah

The “Life” exhibit takes up the entire fourth level of the Museum.  The subject matter covered on this floor ranges from genes and cells, to the delicate balance of life, biodiversity, and ecosystems.

The colorful and playful exhibit design draws you in and entices you to learn more.  As you wander from display to display, the sounds of nature play in the background.

Life Exhibit Natural History Museum of Utah
Life Exhibit Natural History Museum of Utah – Photo by Life, Other Than

The museum also houses a special exhibit on Utah’s indigenous people called “Native Voices”.  It was developed in cooperation with the eight federally recognized tribes residing in Utah.

This unique exhibit features a Storytelling Circle in which elders from several of the native tribes share their stories of human origin and interconnectedness with the Earth.  On display are various weavings including baskets and rugs and examples of Native clothing.

Natural History Museum of Utah
Woven Basket in Native Voices Exhibit Natural History Museum of Utah – Photo by Life, Other Than

There is more to this exhibit than meets the eye of the casual visitor.  As you enter it, you see that the room is round.  This design represents cycles in nature and life that are central to Native culture and spiritual beliefs.

Also of great significance to this exhibit is the fact that it sits directly on the ground and faces east, important factors that were suggested by Native American consultants.  Supplementing the exhibit are a plethora of online resources compiled on the Museum’s website.  Here you can learn about everything from Native American religion, to recipes and games unique to Native American culture.

The Salt Lake City area has a lot to offer to its visitors.  The Natural History Museum of Utah is more than something to do on a rainy day when wildlife viewing on Antelope Island may not be so great.  It is a destination in its own right and doesn’t disappoint.

While you’re in Salt Lake City, also check out these six places.

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