Amnesic Space

Written by  Patrick Smyth


The Utah Museum of Natural History is desperately seeking to fit in. The architecture is a blatant overture to geographical mimicry. Camouflaged in its skin of oxidized copper and wallowing in its rhetoric of the natural, the institution attempts to dissipate its presence and swallow itself whole. The intention of the place is one of anonymity rather than genuine inquiry. Its lines, hues, and serenely quiet isolation atop the dry bench of the Salt Lake Valley are all attempts at blending and merging with the landscape. But if one looks closely, it is impossible to ignore a more obvious, seething truth. The Museum is fundamentally a distortion of place, a deceitful attempt at guising the abomination of landscape at its very core. Its design is a subtle mockery to visitors unwilling to peal back its darker layers.

The Museum incessantly calls upon itself – it's own unique place in space and internal contours - to interpret the very landscape in which it is irrevocably embedded, sitting as it is, upon on the topographic rim of Red Butte Canyon and abutting the Bonneville Shoreline Trail. The lead architectural firm's website boasts, "Integrated into the foothill slopes of the Wasatch Range, the building steps up the hill and cuts into it to mimic natural forms."

Visitors are invited to branch off from the central aorta to explore other minor arteries: Past Worlds, First Peoples, Our Backyard, Land, Great Salt Lake, Gems and Minerals, Life, and Sky. They are encouraged to meander up snaking tributaries and obscure trails, seeking metaphorical headwaters and hidden summits, the origins of things. Inevitably though, one collapses back to the central canyon to maintain legibility of place.

Externally, "a variegated pattern of copper panels extend from the volume at angles that reference the surrounding mountainous landscape and the geographical processes that created it." Internally, the "organization reduces the perceived scale of the building and creates a central wedge-shaped public space called the 'canyon' [from which] exhibits are designed as a system of 'trails,' allowing visitors to choose their own paths." The canyon-trailhead blueprint attempts to simulate the serendipity of venturing into terra incognito. Unknown slots beckon the adventurous to explore the landscapes within a landscape. For anyone who has ever been deep inside a canyon – glaciated or steeply eroded - the virtual reality being mediated by the Museum's self-referential outlay can be slightly nauseating, space yearning to be something it intrinsically cannot.

Twenty or so kids peer down at the topographic map in 'the canyons' center, tracing with their eyes the contoured representations of countless actual, geomorphic canyons that cleave the state. Their voices rise in crescendo to a cacophonous babble. Each abiding the observable phenomena known as the Lombard effect – which by happenstance is most pronounced in acoustically sensitive spaces, like canyons. Speakers involuntarily increase their vocal effort amidst loud noise to enhance the audibility of their individual voice, all in a self-defeating attempt to be heard.

The sculpted space of 'the canyon', with its skylights, pronounced textures and angles, is meant to evoke internal cohesion. A tour-guide urges students to explore, to branch out as they wish, but to return once again to the canyon. It is a place of gathering, a meeting place, gravitational in its pull. It is no coincidence that the Museum café – bastion of all things sociable - is located within the canyons deepest ravine.

But 'the canyon' also functions as an amnesic place. One is meant to ponder within, but not think beyond its plaster and steel. Awareness of mediated space is meant to foster a forgetting of actual place. The canyon is a portal to a carefully scripted world of romantic wonder and awe, rather than to hard truths of sacrifice and erasure.


A placard adjacent to the welcome counter reads, "The copper's journey." Framing it in are glistening sheets of pure, untarnished copper. The subscript headings read from left to right in sequential order: "What did the museum look like new," "Origins," "The 'Heavy Metal' Tour," and "Fabrication and Installation." The descriptions under each tell the story of the copper skin that wraps the buildings exterior. How and where it was extracted, the processing it underwent, and why it has changed color.

The explicit message being advanced is one of holism and elemental grounding in place. "This wall is made from the original copper created for use on the exterior of the Rio Tinto Center. It was built using the same proportion of copper and copper-zinc alloys as Museum designers specified for the Museum's iconic skin." The dull oxidized exterior is contrasted with the radiantly sheened placard before the onlooker. "The copper sheets began their journey to the museum as buried rock-copper ore in Kennecott Utah Copper's Bingham Canyon Mine, 22miles away in the Oquirrh Mountains." The once upon a time trope exercised, the story continues linearly:

"[...]Union Pacific delivered a fully loaded railcar carrying the Museum's copper sheets to metal fabrication plant in Buffalo, New York[...]The Museum's copper skin[...]headed next for Mesa, Arizona where crews flattened the metal, and cut each into the length and widths you see today[...]these well traveled panels became the skin of the Rio Tinto Center[...]each panel will weather uniquely to give the Rio Tinto Center its personality, changing with the seasons and climate in an ever-evolving patina shades of orange, brown, and green [italics mine]."

Deeper inside the Museum, while navigating the switchbacks of geological time, visitors invariably encounter a panel describing the physiographic formation of the "Bingham Stock." An upward intrusion of magma from the earth's core caused an abrupt increase in temperature that metamorphosed the sand, limestone and quartzite surrounding the zone of intrusion. In geological jargon this event is called a contact aureole. As the rocks cooled they recrystalized into an elementally different substrate to form the rich copper lode that came to characterize the area.

The explicit story being conveyed through both architecture and rhetoric is a "cradle-to-cradle" story, a cyclical rebirth. Nature appropriated and reintegrated. Contact aureole metamorphosed into an interpretive space. Reality, however, is more blunt and fragmented. The narrative that more resembles the truth is of the "grave-to-cradle" variety, one landscape meeting its demise so that another could possess a quaint patina and a unique personality that changes with the seasons.

Bingham Canyon along with all its diverging trailheads, slots and tributaries no longer exists. It has been subsumed into the "the Richest Hole on Earth." Rio Tinto's Kennecott copper mine, the largest open pit mine in the world, is responsible for this disappearing act. The corporation's cultural remediation, their amnesic gesture has manifested as a structural counterpoint across the Salt Lake Valley. The Natural History Museum, perched high on the Wasatch foothills and wrapped in its copper flesh is a memorial to forgetting Bingham Canyon, its adjacent peaks and defining streams – erasing too its Past Worlds, First Peoples, Gems, Minerals and Life in the process. Rather than solemnly acknowledging the sacrificed landscape, the Museum attempts to extinguish its memory through cognitive distortions. By trying to merge unnoticed into a new landscape, and call only upon itself for interpretation, the place and space wants only to forget. The 'canyon' is championed as a portal to Utah's diverse and varied landscapes, an "overture to the drama of time, space and inspired learning." A drama does unfold at Utah's Natural History Museum, but it is tragic rather than inspired, a spectacle for forgetting. 

Additional Info

  • Location: Utah Museum of Natural History, Presidents Circle, Salt Lake City, UT