Locals and visitors can really discover Salt Lake City—and the world—by seeing it through its art and artifacts, and the wide-eyed, sharp-tongued critiques of children. I took my two daughters to visit four museums in Salt Lake City to get a feel for what they have to offer to enlighten and entertain children and adults.
The Leonardo—named for Da Vinci, natch—is a festival of interactive edification and fun. Housed in the former Salt Lake City Library, the contemporary science, technology and art museum has so much to do that one can easily pass most of a day there. Of course, my daughters and I didn’t know that going in.
My eldest daughter, in her terrible teens, had been on a field trip to The Leonardo in its nascence. It wasn’t quite done, and she didn’t get the full impact of its high interactivity. Daughter-the-younger was even less thrilled, asking first why she had to go, then if she could bring along her iPod Touch. “Because” and “no” earned resentful glares. Ten minutes later, they said almost in unison, “This place is awesome!”
During that initial 10 minutes, they quietly soaked up Water: Nature’s Driving Force. They studied photos and film, becoming immersed in the entertaining presentation and the information. Surprisingly, I had to urge them on to the next exhibit, a collection of math- and science-inspired art titled Labyrinths of the Mind.
Next, we stumbled into Render and played with motion-capture and painting software, green screens and stop-motion animation stations. The girls went bonkers in the mo-cap, making the onscreen Santa dance “Gangnam Style” and do cartwheels. Soon, our time was up; we had more plans. I rushed the girls through exhibits about Utah’s innovations (the Frisbee, TV, Atari), prosthetic limbs, the “Tinkering Garage” and a real genetics lab (I.D.: What Makes You, You?).
Upon announcing it was time to go, the girls said, “What?!” Don’t worry; we’ll be back.
209 E. 500 South, Salt Lake City, 801-531-9800, TheLeonardo.org
Museum of Church History & Art
“Really? We have to go to a church museum?” was how the girls greeted this opportunity. They followed up by complaining of hunger, fatigue and even homework, hoping to get out of visiting The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ hall of Mormon wonders. Admittedly, I wasn’t expecting too much myself. You see, we’re atheists. I told them to be respectful and reverent, but not in so many words.
Inside, it smelled just like an LDS wardhouse—clean. Pleasant elderly gentlemen, happy in their work, manned the door and staffed the reception desk. A grandmother shepherded four of her children’s children around, explaining the significance of the artifacts, which ranged from a replica of the Salt Lake Temple baptismal font to death masks of Joseph and Hyrum Smith and authentic covered wagons. In the face of relics that, at the very least, provide insight into how our hometown was founded and built, respect and reverence were easy to maintain.
It even got fun when we went upstairs to view a youth art exhibit that will run until June 2013. Dozens of pieces from teens around the world spanned art styles fine to pop—and even included comic-book and Photoshop works. The quality of the art transcended its religious content and transfixed a jaded nonbeliever long enough to miss his daughters’ act of live trolling. On a tablet computer provided for doodles, my youngest drew a heart with the message “I love pancakes.” When asked by the program to explain how her illustration makes her shine, she wrote, “It proves that I love pancakes.”
45 N. West Temple, Salt Lake City, 801-240-3310, LDS.org/ChurchHistory/Museum
Utah Museum of Fine Arts
The media portrays art galleries a certain way. My daughters have been thoroughly indoctrinated.
“Why do we have to go? This is going to be stupid.” I asked why. “Because it’s going to be a bunch of people drinking wine and saying things like (affecting a snooty voice), ‘This is an exquisite piece.’”
I tried not to laugh, then tried to explain to them about reverse snobbery. Naturally, they didn’t listen. They did, however, immediately wander into the museum’s cavernous main auditorium to become absorbed in paintings from Dale Nichols: Transcending Regionalism. They even sat through a short silent film about photographer Nancy Holt’s “Sun Tunnels”—part of her Sightlines exhibit, which held me thoroughly rapt. They seemed fascinated by it and the accompanying photos in the adjacent room.
I was surprised by their complete 180 until the young one, the aspiring artist, blurted out that she had had enough—and my terrible teen seconded it. Evidently, they still believed fine art was an exercise in pretentiousness. Of Nichols’ work, the youngster said, “Farmland? Oh, hell, no.” And of Holt’s carefully wrought, mathematical/astronomical wonder? “Oh, great. Light shining through a bunch of holes.”
My turn: “What?!”
Ultimately, they changed their tune upon discovering kid-centric exhibits with paintings and 3-D design by artists their own age. They also spent quite a lot of time snapping phone photos of Egyptian and Mexican artifacts, and even playing with a perspective display from Sightlines.
I called their bluff. They didn’t back down, but copped to liking the above.
410 Campus Center Drive, Salt Lake City, 801-581-7332 UMFA.Utah.edu
The Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum of Utah’s new building sits high on the east bench, is designed to blend into the mountains and boasts a majestic view of Salt Lake Valley. School and homework prevented the girls from visiting the NHMU with me, and they didn’t care until they saw the pictures I snapped with my smartphone. “Why didn’t you take us?” they asked. They muttered as they paged through the photos of mounted dinosaurs, geological marvels and local Indian artifacts—along with my narration, which verged on childlike.
“Check that out—they found real dinosaur skin!” That display is one of the first things you see upon starting a tour of the museum—you know, after passing lab volunteers dusting off artifacts in a glass-encased archaeological lab. Betcha didn’t know that you need only apply and complete a three-week course to work there, eh? Neither did I. And after visiting the NHMU, I really really wanna.
This place has that effect on a person. A natural-history museum seemingly hooks you with the big guns: the Allosaurus, T. Rex and Triceratops skeletons. But it’s really just the first chapter in the natural evolution of our world—or more specifically, the state. The ensuing episodes about geology and the first-peoples exhibits really make you contemplate the significance of natural wonders and ancient cultures and what we’ll leave for future generations. Clearly, things the girls wanted to know about—“I am so mad at you right now.”
301 Wakara Way, Salt Lake City, 801-581-6927, NHMU.Utah.edu
Salt Lake City’s digital dome planetarium and IMAX theater features free exhibits such as NOAA’s “Science on a Sphere,” a Foucault pendulum and an authentic moon rock. 110 S. 400 West, Salt Lake City, 385-468-7827, ClarkPlanetarium.org
Discovery Gateway Children’s Museum
Six galleries of interactive, hands-on exhibits and programs for kids and families. 444 W. 100 South, Salt Lake City, 801-456-5437, ChildMuseum.org
The Living Planet Aquarium
The aquarium’s Sandy location will remain open until September 2013, when it will close and relocate to highlight ecosystems from around the world. 725 E. 10600 South, Sandy, 801-355-3474, TheLivingPlanet.com. New location as of December 2013: Loveland Living Planet Aquarium, 12033 S. Lone Peak Parkway, Draper
Utah Museum of Contemporary Art
UMOCA’s engaging workshops, community outreach and five galleries that showcase artists both local and international make for a lively cultural scene. 20 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City, 801-328-4201, UtahMOCA.org