The Long History Behind the Natural History Museum of Utah

By Heather Ernst

In 1961, “in the basement of the decaying, eroded Biology Building, a collection of Utah fauna [was] cached away wherever room may [have been] found.” The Daily Utah Chronicle further noted that the cramped rooms were known at the time as Utah’s Museum of Natural History. Many university staff and students were pushing then for the construction of a new museum. But it wasn’t until the legislature made House Bill 93, which called for the construction of a Utah State Museum of Natural History, that the building plans were finalized. Now, almost 60 years later, the collection of Utah artifacts that were overflowing in a couple small classrooms in 1961 are housed in an even newer, state of the art building opened in 2011. So how did we get here? What is the history behind our beautiful Natural History Museum of Utah?

We’ll start our historical journey in 1961, when an editorial published on January 30 in the Daily Utah Chronicle called for the construction of a Utah natural history museum. The article referred to the new building as “a must.” Shortly after the article was written, real plans came into effect toward the new Utah State Museum of Natural History. In fact, on September 29, 1965, a Daily Utah Chronicle editor, Paul S. Taylor, reported the new museum was to be housed in the George Thomas Library on the University of Utah campus. The museum had a director, Dr. Jesse D. Jennings, a professor of anthropology, and it was to combine the existing Anthropology and Geology Museums. In a Daily Utah Chronicle article published on February 23, 1968, Jennings stressed the educational importance of the museum, calling it “an integral part of the educational program of the University, for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of Utah.” The people did not have to wait long as the museum officially opened its doors in the fall of 1969.


The George Thomas Library on the University of Utah campus was the home of the Natural History Museum of Utah from 1969 to 2011. The museum was later moved to The Rio Tinto Center in 2011. Used by permission, Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah.

Once the museum was opened in the former George Thomas Library on campus, its allure spread across the Salt Lake Valley. “The museum and its displays will be of great interest to students in a wide variety of disciplines on the campus and will be a significant addition to the state’s cultural resources,” said Jennings in the Daily Utah Chronicle on February 7, 1969. The museum was home to anthropological, biological, and geological materials in a program of exhibits, educations and research. The artifacts were brought from the Desert Museum as well as from the Charles Nettleton Strevell Museum. The new Utah useum was set to house 150 exhibits at the time of its opening, including life-size dinosaur skeletons and dioramas of various areas of Utah. The major group displays were made up of the Wasatch Front, Jurassic Dinosaurs, and Utah Mule Deer. Many of the displays in the museum were funded by private donations plus federal grants. However, University students also had a role in the funding of the museum.

An article from the Daily Utah Chronicle describes how the museum asked the Associated Students of the University of Utah (ASUU) for financial help in developing and maintaining the new museum. The students were asked for $1.50 per student to come from regular fees, and in return, the museum would give them a year’s admission to the museum. The regular admission fee was a single dollar for adults and fifty cents for children under 15; much cheaper than today’s $12-15 admission fees.

By the fall of 1972, the Utah Museum of Natural History had become even more widely known and even received accreditation from the American Association of Museums. On September 27, 1972, the Daily Utah Chronicle reported “of the 6,000 museums in the United States and Canada, only 139 have received accreditation from the American Association of Museums,” making the honor that much more profound. The museum accreditation signifies that a museum has met the standards established by the museum profession and the Accreditation Committee. The museum was praised highly, having been referred to as an exemplary institution for design and technique.


Three of the first mounted dinosaurs were displayed in 1968 at the opening of the new Utah Museum of Natural History. The dinosaurs were an Allosaurus attacking a Camptosaurus, while a second Allosaurus looks on. Used by permission, Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah.

Over the last 60 years, the museum has continued to flourish, grow in popularity and receive plenty of accreditations, including the one from the American Association of Museums. The collections have grown over time through research, acquisition and contributions to add up to more than 1.6 million objects. The museum grew so much. however, that it had to relocate once again into an even larger building in 2011. According to director Sarah B. George in a New York Times interview, the museum had inadequate quarters for research and collection. A new building was needed as soon as possible and a mix of public and private funds pushed the ambitious planning for the new Rio Tinto Center, the home of the Natural History Museum of Utah.

The new museum building, the Rio Tinto Center, was designed by Todd Schliemann. He drew his inspiration for the building from the Utah deserts. Schliemann explained his inspiration saying, “We talked to people about how they felt about their place [in Utah], and it became evident that architecture would have to reflect this place.” (Maffly) The building, which opened on November 18, 2011, is located on 17 acres in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountain Range and cost $102 million to construct. The building has a powerful impact under the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains and is surrounded by biking and hiking trails. The museum is home in the dominion it surveys, the natural world. The building’s exterior directly relates to the natural world surrounding it, covered in copper to resemble the sedimentary layers of Utah’s red rock geology. The roof of the museum features two 10,000 gallon cisterns to store rain water. Gardens of native grasses along the edges of the building help to moderate temperatures. Similarly, the new museum has installed solar voltaic panels on the roof to harvest energy from the sun and put it toward the building’s electrical needs. The best part of the new building was that more than a fourth of the materials came from recycled sources and most of the construction waste was recycled. “The new building represents the rich and natural history of Utah,” said Patti Carpenter, the museum’s public relations director, in a 2011 interview with the Deseret News.

The rich and natural history of Utah has been available for years. However, the construction of the “new” museum in 1969 made that history much more accessible. The Rio Tinto Center increases accessibility to artifacts and Utah natural history while adding a variety of educational and research opportunities that couldn’t be found in the past. The Natural History Museum of Utah has a rich history on its own, but the new building has brought new exhibit galleries, engaging programs for the public and research facilities. The museum has become invaluable to the University of Utah, Utahns as well as tourists. The museum is still a work in progress, with new educational programs and interactive exhibits added regularly, but the progress made over the past 60 years simply cannot be ignored.

Heather Ernst is a senior at The University of Utah. She is majoring in mass communication with an emphasis in journalism and minoring in creative writing.

Primary Sources

New Museum: It’s a Must,” Daily Utah Chronicle, January 30, 1961, 2.

Paul S. Taylor, “Museum of Natural History Planned For New Library,” Daily Utah Chronicle, September 29, 1965, 4.

Suzanne Boynton, “Old Library To Be Museum,” Daily Utah Chronicle, February 23, 1968, 6.

Geoff Towns, “Natural History Museum to house 150 exhibits,” Daily Utah Chronicle, October 8, 1968, 5.

Utah museum represents funds from U students,” Daily Utah Chronicle, February 2, 1969, 12.

Campus houses two accredited museums,” Daily Utah Chronicle, September 27, 1972, 2.

Michael Ann McKinlay, “Museum makeover: Natural History Museum of Utah Rio Tinto Center will open Nov. 18,” Deseret News, November 13, 2011.

Brian Maffly, “Natural History Museum of Utah: Rio Tinto Center designed with a sense of place,” The Salt Lake Tribune, November 14, 2011.

Edward Rothstein, “History Carved Out of the Hills,” The New York Times, March 23, 2012.

Secondary Sources

Accredited,” Davis County Clipper, September 1, 1972, 28.

Hague, Donald V. “Museums in Utah,” Utah History Encyclopedia.

Natural History Museum of Utah announces opening,” Utah Business, November 1, 2011, 16.