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Museum of Natural History of Utah: Must Love Dinos



Had things gone differently, this might have been a culminating week for me. ---

Six years ago, I nearly took a job at the Museum of Natural History. I was copy editor at City Weekly at the time and feared I'd reached the zenith of my journalistic career. Plus, I'd always had a soft spot for dinosaurs.

The job sounded good. The museum had outgrown its 89,000-square-foot historic home (originally built as the George Thomas Library on the U of U's Presidents Circle) and was planning a new building in Research Park. Had I taken the job, I would have helped the PR director let people know that a new, one-of-a-kind, 163,000-square-foot architectural wonder was being built and the museum would be moving there. Plus I would have publicized school programs, movie nights and exhibits -- events the museum was long known for. And the cherry on top: I might have been in the thick of things with the U's paleontologists and their new fossil discoveries.

Not bad work if you can get it.

But there's a down side with PR, one that's fraught with moral dilemmas. There's the crisis, and the haters. The people who screw up. (Ask Joe Paterno.) Some folks don't like tax hikes to pay for public buildings. Others don't like development. You need to be able to explain things like:

  • * The need to give your identity to a multinational mining company. The museum is now known as the "Rio Tinto Center" after the international parent company of Kennecott Utah Copper. The copper mining company, which had a 30-year history of museum support, gave a $15 million donation that included 68 tons of locally mined copper that was fabricated into a copper skin for the building.

  • * Why a fragile mountain foothill needed to be developed in the first place. The 17-acre site just south of Red Butte Garden, where the building is perched, was an unpopular choice for those who loved natural unfettered access to the Bonneville Shoreline Trail. It was the last of three undeveloped lots in Research Park. Had the museum not grabbed it, it's likely another corporation would have.

  • * Getting a bond passed to fund the museum. Proposition 1, the ballot measure that passed in 2010 authorizing a $15 million bond, will result in a $2.40 property tax increase on a $265,000 home in Salt Lake County. Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, spoke against the bond, objecting to a tax increase during a recession. Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, also complained that attempts to influence the bond vote through postcard mailings (paid for by a political issues committee Natural History Now) and the museum's highway billboard campaign launched just months before the museum closed were paid for by organizations that received public funding.

Obviously, I didn't go -- I stayed with City Weekly. My life got better. The museum broke ground for construction in 2008 and went dark at end of 2010 in preparation for the move. Six years ticked by. And once in a while, I wistfully thought about dinosaurs.

Yesterday, I found myself on a media tour of the new museum. Exploring the ten galleries teeming with historical objects, maps, globes, butterflies and minerals, I confess to feeling a secret exhilaration. I had no special tie to the place, no job, no membership, no privilege. But it was my museum. These were my building blocks, what makes me "me."

It's hard to be objective about the place. Not because they once offered me a job and almost lured me away from a company and profession that I love. But because of what surrounds you: what their staff calls "the DNA of Utah."

While at a recent journalism dinner discussing industry trends, City Weekly's founder John Saltas referred to me and a few other local journalists in attendance as "dinosaurs." Some were infuriated by the comment, with one Salt Lake Tribune columnist telling Saltas to "put a sock in it."

It wasn't meant as a compliment. Anyone working for a newspaper is faced with adapting to digital imperatives or going extinct. Still, my mind imagined the life-size dinosaur mounts at the museum -- ferocious ancient bones that continue to draw perennial awestruck crowds. Long dead -- more than 65 million years since any such reptile roamed the planet -- they give puny human beings a reason to part with $100 million and build a copper temple in which to worship them.

(photos by Jerre Wroble)