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Utah Museum of Natural History move: 1.2 million objects well on their way

By Steve Fidel | Posted - Apr. 13, 2011 at 4:40 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Talking about a "moving exhibit" at a museum might bring to mind a diorama with motorized parts.

But a scene where the glass comes off the cases and the exhibits themselves bug out — that's only for the movies, right?

"Museums rarely move their collections because it's such an enormous undertaking. I can only think of two or three in the last 10 years that have undertaken this kind of project," said Sarah George, director of the Utah Museum of Natural History.

But moving the entire museum has been the primary job since the museum closed at the end of December. On Wednesday, George was surrounded by empty exhibits and an army of volunteers who were moving a collection of delicate Hopi kachina dolls and Navajo rugs.

Training the volunteers how to handle delicate museum pieces began more than three years ago as the museum started packing for the move from its home of more than 30 years on the main University of Utah campus to its new location at the Rio Tinto Center less than two miles southeast at 301 Wakara Way. The new museum is scheduled to open in November.

"They're doing an incredible job of putting these 1.2 million objects in cases and transporting them. And of course they'll be unpacking them when we get into the new building," George said.

Like most museums, the number of items on display is supplemented by an extensive research collection stored out of view.

Les Winter is one of the volunteers who has been arriving at the museum every Wednesday morning for three years to help with the move. On Wednesday he was packing the kachina dolls, each about 6 inches tall, in plastic bags that were then secured in boxes so they wouldn't jiggle around during the move. Most are decorated with feathers that are easily damaged, so the packing involves extra caution.

"We've done the whole works — arrowheads, now the kachinas. Last week we were doing baskets," he said.

Visitors familiar with the museum will see a number of new exhibits, many of them interactive, after the move. Even some of the notable exhibits from the current location will look quite different.

The woolly mammoth, for example, was previously displayed with its front legs bent, which showed the massive ancient creature's spine parallel with the ground. The story at the museum is that the mammoth wouldn't have fit through the door to the exhibit hall if it had been positioned fully upright. But the mammoth in its new display will be standing with its legs straight, its spine sloping downward from front to back — a more accurate representation of the way it would have looked in life.

And dinosaur skeletons assembled in the 1960s, when it was popular to picture them standing more upright with their tails dragging, will instead show them more horizontally aligned with the tail extended as a counterbalance to the upper body.

The packed artifacts are put in a deep freeze at minus 30 degrees centigrade for 48 hours to kill any mold or insects or insect eggs that might be stowaways on items in the museum's collection.

The only items not frozen are the 25,000 research specimens stored in ethanol-filled jars — including snakes, rodents, turtles and numerous other small animals. Vertebrates curator Eric Rickart said the ethanol is its own exterminating agent.


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