Natural History Museum of Utah Environmental Graphics and Exhibits

Of the Earth

The new Natural History Museum of Utah uses organic forms, materials, and a sympathetic environmental graphics program to fill its role as “the trailhead to Utah.”

Nestled in the foothills of the Wasatch Range, with a brilliant blue sky and snow-dusted peaks as its backdrop, the new copper-sheathed Natural History Museum of Utah looks as much a part of its surroundings as the mountains themselves.

Making the new museum an extension of the natural environment—like a hike through the canyon—was a goal shared by the museum, Ennead Architects, and the gold-star design team tasked with creating its exhibitions, wayfinding, and environmental graphics.

In operation for more than 40 years, the museum saw in its new beginnings the opportunity to re-envision how it uses architecture, its vast collections, and media and technology to immerse visitors in the natural formation of life and land around Salt Lake City.

“We knew we wanted a museum whose architecture, site, and exhibitions were integrated and conceived as one,” says Sarah George, Executive Director.

The result is a museum rooted solidly in place, purpose-built to house a highly respected regional collection inside while showcasing the natural wonders outside. “Early on we determined this would be a museum that continues to look inward to research and scholarship but that also looks outward to the amazing natural and cultural landscapes that surround it,” says George. “We always envisioned it as the trailhead to the state of Utah.”

Collaborative by nature

A highly collaborative design team delivered on that vision. The interpretive program by Ralph Appelbaum Associates served as the basis for, then was developed in tandem with the architectural plans by Ennead. Later in the process, graphic design firm Poulin + Morris conceived an environmental graphics, donor recognition, and wayfinding program built on the foundations of the interpretive plan. And Infinite Scale, a Salt Lake City design firm, created an iconic mark, brand platform, and graphic standards that bridge web, print, and three-dimensional applications.

As a result of their collaboration, the museum seems at one with its surroundings. Breathtaking vistas outside often seem like extensions of the interior landscape. The circulation plan includes an expansive canyon-like public space as well as switchbacks, bridges, and elevation changes that evoke a hike through the canyon. Exhibitions are designed as a system of trails, allowing visitors to choose their own path. And earthy materials, organic faceted forms, and a unified approach to graphics underscore the beauty of the natural world and clarify the museum’s offerings.

Located on the campus of the University of Utah, staffed by the university and owned by the state of Utah, the new 153,000-square-foot museum (built to LEED Gold standards) was more than 15 years in the making. In the late 1990s, Appelbaum worked with George and her staff to create a conceptual plan for a new museum to replace the facility they were rapidly outgrowing. In 2003 and 2004, Appelbaum returned to complete interpretive master planning. Design and fabrication of 40,000 square feet of exhibition and learning lab space was completed between 2005 and 2011, before the museum’s opening in November 2011.

“To be involved in planning phases prior to design is a really unique opportunity, and it allowed us to have a strong hand in shaping the building around the content and visitor experience,” says Tim Ventimiglia, Appelbaum’s project director for the museum and now director of the firm’s Berlin office.

“We spent many weeks a year exploring the state, talking to countless Utahans and going on camping and hiking expeditions to help us understand the stories we’d be telling,” he adds. “More than 200 community members were involved in our content development meetings. We front-load our process with lots of dialogue and exploration, and we channeled all of that into an interpretive master plan that serves as a foundation document for design.”

When the museum issued its RFP for a design architect, Appelbaum helped with the shortlist and watched the architects respond to the master plan. Ennead was selected and the longstanding relationship between the two firms, as well as landscape architects Design Workshop, “allowed us to create a building and site really in tune with the interpretive ideals for the project,” says Ventimiglia. “So we could create, for example, these amazing terracing themes and big views out of the building. It characterized a very different kind of architecture and a different approach to exhibit-making—blurring the boundaries between what’s inside and what’s outside.”

Exhibitions: inside/out/authentic

The museum exhibition space is divided into nine thematic experiences that use both traditional media and new technology to engage visitors.

Each gallery is linked to specific “view sheds” around the site. The Lake gallery, for example, commands a view to the Great Salt Lake, while the Land gallery looks out onto grass-covered foothills and the snow-covered Wasatch Range beyond. “But the connection is not just visual,” says Ventimiglia. Terraces off the galleries encourage visitors to flow in and out of the building and complete activities that support the interpretive content.

The galleries incorporate traditional exhibition techniques such as dioramas, photo murals, and a “trophy wall” of dinosaur skulls, as well as technology-driven interactives and sound- and scent-scapes.

In the Lake gallery, a sophisticated topographical floor graphic of the Great Salt Lake testifies to the level of authenticity that museum staff and exhibition designers were working to achieve. To show visitors how the current Great Lake is just a remnant of a much larger lake formed during the Pleistocene era, the team inscribed the historical contours into the floor using a traditional terrazzo technique, mixing actual lake sediment and fossilized remains into the design. To represent the present-day contours, they used an Italian-made gel material that simulates the look and feel of water. Matching the dimensions and tolerances of the gel contours with the terrazzo was a monumental task that required laser measurements, full-scale drawings, and an MDF template shipped cross-country to ensure the final product was accurate.

“We jokingly call it our lava lamp floor, but visitors love it and it really conveys the story we’re trying to tell,” says Tim Lee, an exhibition designer on the museum staff.

Typography was a critical underpinning of the interpretive program. The Appelbaum team chose Eidetic Neo (serif) and Reykjavik (sans-serif) to unify the exhibition content, and they were later adopted for environmental graphics and brand identity.

Materials: MDF revealed

Like the architectural palette, the exhibition materials were chosen to reflect the content: earthy, simple and, Ventimiglia says, “honest.”

In the Land gallery, MDF became a primary choice both for aesthetic and cost reasons. “As a designer, I like to use materials for what they are in an honest way,” he explains. “Although MDF is used a lot in museum projects for obvious reasons, it’s often hidden behind laminates and paints. But it’s an interesting and versatile material by itself: you can carve it, shape it, cut it thick or thin, and fabricators are accustomed to working with it. It’s often not explored visually or revealed. And it’s also inexpensive. So it was really exciting to see what we could do with this most basic and common exhibition material—to use it in new and dramatic ways to create a landscape.”

So MDF panels are another unifying element in the exhibition space, sometimes canted to form canyon-like walls that echo the landscape outside the windows. Ventimiglia’s desire to leverage its natural attributes led to an exploration of direct-to-substrate printing, and he was amazed at the results—and how project fabricators embraced the new territory. But the process was again complex. After matching them for tone and quality, primary fabricator Kubik/Maltbie cut the raw MDF panels to shape in their Toronto and New Jersey shops, then routed header text into them and finished them with a clear lacquer. Then, the panels were shipped on custom skids to Salt Lake City so local firm Fusion Graphics could print them.

“It was risky to ship these finished exhibition components across the country to be printed,” explains Ventimiglia. “Usually we print and then cut the substrate to fit, but in this case the printing had to happen over routed text and sometimes across multiple panels, so it had to be aligned perfectly. We pushed the technology to the max. We were lucky to have a fabricator like Maltbie and a printer like Fusion willing to go along on an adventure with us.”

Faceted brand identity

Tasked to create a new brand identity and graphic standards for the museum, local firm Infinite Scale launched an exhaustive typographic study of more than 200 fonts, including the two already tapped by Appelbaum for the interpretive program. Ultimately the team liked the idea of a unified system based on just the two typefaces, and built a robust set of guidelines across various media.

For the brand mark itself, Infinite Scale Partner Cameron Smith investigated numerous concepts but was intrigued by the architect’s use of a triangulated grid to set the building into the foothills.

“We extracted the triangles off their grid and started to play with those forms,” says Smith. “I was fascinated by this and also by aerial photos showing buildings from space and by cell-level microscopy. They both looked the same to me; everything is organic and geometric at the same time.”

From these references, Smith evolved an organic mark made of eight irregular triangles that combine to look somewhat like a mountain, perhaps suggestive of Red Butte Peak, which the museum is set against. “It’s iconic enough that you probably see a mountain first, but you can read whatever you want into it,” Smith explains.

Environmental graphics: connecting it all

When the museum selected Poulin + Morris to design environmental graphics, wayfinding, and donor recognition elements, fabrication of the exhibitions was underway and Infinite Scale had developed graphic standards to guide the brand identity across web, print, and 3D platforms.

“Our role was to establish a point of view—a visual and graphic direction—for all public information around the site, all the way from code and regulatory signs to directional wayfinding and donor recognition,” says Richard Poulin.

P + M had worked often with Appelbaum and Ennead, and understood the project required a collaborative spirit as well as a deep understanding of the architectural vision, both from a design and circulation standpoint.

“Our approach is always to connect with the architectural vocabulary right away, so that we understand the nuances and references that help us conceptualize our initial work,” Poulin explains.

P + M’s sign design responds to the architecture directly, with bent and formed, faceted freestanding monuments that recall the shapes of the surrounding mountains and the walls of the museum. “There are no right angles or flat surfaces in this building, so you certainly wouldn’t want to put a 90-degree angle or any other simple geometric form in the space,” Poulin points out.

Boyd Sign Systems (Denver) fabricated the wayfinding signs of brakeformed, thin-mil aluminum with silkscreened lettering. The aluminum forms are painted the same creamy white as the walls, with contrasting typography in a color similar to the copper found throughout the museum. “Our goal was to allow the sign forms to recede and become part of the walls, but with highly legible text for wayfinding,” Poulin adds. Exterior signs are the reverse: brakeformed Corten steel with creamy white lettering.

Guiding visitors through the space also meant understanding the untraditional circulation plan. “Our main challenge was that from purely an experiential point of view, it seems disorienting. But if you follow the recommended sequence—start at the top and work your way down, similar to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.—it’s very intuitive,” Poulin explains. “There’s no obvious linear route between A and B. It’s designed to allow visitors some choices in how they experience the space.” The museum committed to providing a printed visitor map so that signs didn’t need to include them. “That was a big decision that helped us a lot,” he adds.

P + M also designed a donor recognition platform that included a copper-paneled primary donor element in the main entrance, a secondary donor wall, and a range of recognition levels from gallery spaces to individual exhibits. “We knew that the majority of these spaces wouldn’t be sold prior to the opening of the museum so our goal was to establish design standards the museum can use going forward.”

A natural success

Executive Director Sarah George says that by many measures, the new museum is a resounding success. Its goal was to attract 255,000 visitors in the first year and almost 400,000 people have passed through the doors. It exceeded membership goals by 50% in the first year. Its public spaces are constantly booked by outside groups, and it has received plenty of media attention, both national and international.

When George looks around her, though, she is most satisfied by the reactions of visitors and their obvious ease in the space. “It’s a dramatic space, but not a daunting one,” she says. “People walk in and gasp when they see The Canyon, but they feel comfortable. They walk through the exhibits and the learning labs and they’re really engaged. I wanted the museum to be a very welcoming place, and it is.”

--By Pat Matson Knapp, eg magazine No. 03, 2012


Client:  The Natural History Museum of Utah at Rio Tinto Center

Budget:  $17 million (exhibitions), $175,000 (wayfinding and donor recognition fabrication)

Project Area: 153,000 sq. ft.

Opened:  November 2011

Exhibition Design:  Ralph Appelbaum Associates

Environmental Graphic Design:  Poulin + Morris

Branding and Identity Design:  Infinite Scale

Exhibit Fabrication:  Kubik/Maltbie Associates primary fabricator, Fusion Graphics direct-to-substrate printing 

Signage Fabrication:  Boyd Sign Systems

Architecture:  Ennead Architects LLP design architect, GSBS architect of record, Design Workshop landscape architecture

Consultants:  Big-D Construction general contractor/interior fitout; Dixon Studios sculpture and scenic art; Boston Productions A/V systems integration, interactive media; Mediatrope Interactive Studio, Frankly, Green + Webb trails media system/mobile media; Northern Light Productions linear media; Brandston Partnership lighting; BBI Engineering A/V systems design; Shen Milsom & Wilke acoustics

Photos:  Chuck Choi (except as noted)


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