Decoding Design

A natural history museum moves out of town, and into nature

Posting in Architecture

Is a museum only successful when placed in a metro area? A new museum in Utah doesn't think so-- in fact, it was designed specifically to fit its natural surroundings.

Normally, as cultural centers, museums are placed in a more urban setting so that even those who haven't made the decision to visit can enjoy and learn at will. Museums, whether they are home to art or fossils are generally in a setting where they can be easily absorbed by the people they were intended to reach.

Last week, the New York Times published a piece on Salt Lake City's new Natural History Museum of Utah, in which Edward Rothstein praises the decision to place the new museum out of the metro area of Salt Lake and in the foothills that surround the city.

Rothstein makes some good (and elegant) arguments:

"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 building, designed by Todd Schliemann of Ennead Architects, is beautiful, and its perfectly within the site, tucked into the foothills so well that you can barely see it as you approach.

But the reason that museums generally traditionally go in a more metro area is access. There's also the question of sustainability-- really the only way up to the site is by car, making the new site a continuation of an "isolated monument" pattern that happens with these things.

Smartplanet had the chance to talk to the museum's director, Sarah George, about how to pick a location for a natural history museum, and why the more remote location up against the foothills ultimately won out.

Where to build a museum

George said that back in 1994, when the museum was just beginning to consider a move from its old building in the center of the University of Utah's campus, a consulting firm gave them a list of criteria that would help them assess a new site: cost of development (does it already have infrastructure), will you have to buy the land (if so, who owns it), will it be accessible to the museum's faculty and students (do you want to stay a part of the university), the level of public access, and access to the outdoors (the staff really wanted direct connections to the outside).

"I came to the museum specifically because it was part of a university," she said. "If I was going to stay I wanted to be part of it."

Other spots, including Salt Lake's downtown area and as well as further out of town near the marshes of the Great Salt Lake were considered, but the new site scored high in all of the criteria other than public access.

The university's campus was expanding, and this area of the foothills was already planned for development-- also, there are other cultural centers nearby: the Utah Zoo and the Red Butte Garden, a local destination all year, but known for a great concert line-up during the summer season.

For cities that are up-and-coming, like Salt Lake, the placement of cultural hubs matters, and a traditional view is that museums create a sense of legitimacy  and a cosmopolitan feel. But George has no regrets.

"Downtown we would have had to buy the land, which is outrageously expensive, with no direct access to the outside, and where building parking costs are prohibitive for a nonprofit. The building itself would have been buried in the middle of buildings, and the opportunity to do something that would reflect our natural history would be highly unlikely."

Side-stepping central location with great architecture

If a more urban center isn't an option, how to you bring in visitors? You make it out the building, and you make it about the museum's content.

George said that before the building was even designed, a group got together to decide how much space to dedicate to various functions, or how to connect storage, exhibits and the outdoors. They handed the architects are three inch book of the functional program.

Hours were spent driving around the state with the architects in tow, letting them absorb their surroundings, and ultimately absorb the natural history that they would be designing for in person.

Instead of following a current trend of holding a design competition, George and co. opted to work directly with the firm, so instead of being given 6 designs to chose from, they were able to be a part of the design process.

"We liked that they listened to us very carefully," she said. "I think they would say that they had a great opportunity to do something really extraordinary."

One of the greatest parts about good architecture and design is its ability to draw people to it. Just look at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The new museum is closer, and much smaller, but will likely have a big cultural impact on the city and state that is its subject.

"What makes a museum great," said George, "is when it's aesthetically wonderful and when it functions well. This building functions well."

For more pictures and information, click here.

Images: NHMU

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Beth Carter

Contributing Editor

Beth Carter is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has worked for Catalyst magazine, the New York Times Syndicate, BBC Travel and Wired. She holds degrees from the University of Oregon and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure