Natural History AND Nature and Science

As part of a research trip with a current museum client and their architectural team, I recently had the pleasure of exploring a few of the newest natural history and nature and science museums. Our entourage of about 10 museum professionals acted as both visitors and guests; we explored the museums from the public side, and received organized, generous and informative back-of-house tours.

Exhibits at the Utah Museum of Natural History, are housed in elegant and evocative, “canyonesque” architecture, built into a hillside such that each of the museum’s floors engages the landscape outside. Exhibits are able to refer directly to views of the bench-like mountains that step up to the east of downtown Salt Lake City and fall away to the Great Salt Lake Basin to the west. Numerous portals invite visitors to step outside the galleries and appreciate fresh air, indigenous plantings, and the sounds and smells of nature. Rarely have I experienced a museum that acknowledges and incorporates its ecological, geological, and cultural context like this one does. 

The museum is on the campus of the University of Utah, and it showcases the strengths of this partnership in amazing ways: stunning collections, scientists in residence and in the field, and real projects in action on the exhibit floor. 

The permanent exhibits are punctuated by highly flexible venues: a weather terrace; a drop-in naturalist’s nook; and lab spaces that reference a cave and a geologist’s workroom. My initial criticism of the apparent expense and permanency of the highly integrated, architectural exhibits was quickly quelled when I discovered how these and other venues accommodate staffed programs, floor talks, nature walks, and impromptu demonstrations. The Utah Museum of Natural History has made the commitment to provide dynamism and flexibility through real people versus installations.

As much as the Utah Museum is about the “place,” Dallas’ newest museum, it seems, is about the “package.” In Dallas, the Perot Museum of Nature & Science, takes a more universal look at natural science, although the building, with its interesting escalator and LEED -certified status is (according to the museum’s website and map) its most important exhibit and its most advertised feature.

Housed within this intriguing architectural cube and set upon a near-5-acre site, the exhibitions are arranged on 6 levels. Each bears a distinct design look and feel. Unaffiliated with a university, the Perot is less focused on collections and less committed to its local natural history. It is therefore more free to expand its exhibition program to ideas as far as the origins of the universe and outer space to the inner workings of the human body – and nearly everything in between. A self-proclaimed family attraction, the museum offers playful exhibits like media-based “Soar Like a Bird” and “Race Against a Cheetah,” (my titles) and inventive tinkering spaces where groups and individuals can make remotely controlled vehicles and create digital art.

Visiting these museums – one after the other – made me really aware of the distinctions between a regional natural history museum and a general museum of nature and science. Where the Utah Museum of Natural History feels at home in its environmental context, the Perot feels like an invasive species. Where the Perot offers energetic play and creative simulation, Utah offers spaces for authentic encounter and contemplation.

One museum shouts the comprehensive story of the earth in loud colors; the other shares its indigenous story in soft tones.

Neither is bad...They’re just different.