From snails in the backyard to trout in a nearby stream, from snakes on a hiking trail to rats lurking downtown, there are more animals around us than people realize — and, for the next seven months, they all have a home at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

The museum’s new exhibit, “Nature All Around Us,” aims to show visitors that wild animals and plants are as close as your backyard, neighborhood park and city street.

“It’s really getting at the heart of the idea that nature and cities are not opposites, they’re not contradictory. They are inextricably linked,” said Lisa Thompson, NHMU’s exhibit developer and interpretive planner.

The exhibit opens Saturday at NHMU, at 301 Wakara Way in Salt Lake City, and runs through May 25. The museum plans a daylong celebration for Saturday’s opening.

“It’s the biggest in-house exhibit we’ve ever done,” said Tim Lee, the museum’s project director, at a media preview this week. Museum staff have spent three years developing the exhibit.

The Natural History Museum of Utah’s new exhibit, “Nature All Around Us,” is an interactive look at animals and plants people cross paths every day.
Where • Natural History Museum of Utah, 301 Wakara Way, Salt Lake City
When • Opens Saturday, Oct. 19, and runs through May 25, 2020
Hours • 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, open until 9 p.m. Wednesdays
Admission • Covered in the museum’s general admission: $14.95 for adults, $12.95 for seniors (65 and up) and young adults (13 to 24), $9.95 for children (3 to 12), and free for children 2 and under.
Opening celebration • Set for Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., it will feature local “citizen scientists” talking about their research, as well as close-up looks at snakes, amphibians and bugs, and a chance for kids to make a backyard “bee hotel.”

“Nature All Around Us” has a mixture of displays: Live animals, specimens from the museum’s vast collection, interactive digital games, hands-on adventures, and what Lee calls “Diorama 2.0” — taking the classic museum idea of dioramas and adding video projections to make the scenes come alive.

All of these elements are evident in the first of the exhibit’s six sections, which depicts the nature found in the yard and garden.

The first thing one encounters is a re-creation of the outside of a house, with textured brickwork and window sills. Projected onto those surfaces are the animals one might expect to see there: a house cat in the window, a raccoon and a skunk by the outside, birds on the fence, and a squirrel running around a tree. (The images of the squirrel were filmed in Lee’s own yard, he said.)

Nearby, there’s a simulation of Rebecca Ray’s backyard garden. Ray is one of the many “citizen scientists” who collect data and observations of their nearby surroundings, information that researchers don’t have the time or resources to gather themselves.

Some “citizen scientists” help set up and maintain cameras that monitor animal activity in the woods. Others watch for birds that die from striking skyscrapers, to help measure the effects of light pollution on night migration.

The “citizen scientist” movement, Lee said, was an early inspiration for the exhibit. The idea, he said, “was to really look at citizen science, or community science, and look at ways that we could start to engage our communities in participating in science by going out into nature and making discoveries.”

Also in the yard-and-garden section is a “Meet Your Neighbors” display, an array of lucite boxes with specimens from the museum’s collections. Similar boxes in other parts of the exhibit show different types of leaves, or the various forms of scat, or poop, wild animals leave behind.

For those who want to really get into the exhibit, there’s a “pollination station,” in which museum visitors can put on costumes and roam around a giant path of flowers.

The exhibit highlights six habitats where humans and wild creatures cross paths: Yards and gardens, urban forests, parks and open spaces, the wildland-urban interface (such as foothills where houses are up against wild areas), rivers and streams, and city streets.

Different live animals reside in each of the areas. Snails are at home in the garden, rats roam a terrarium-like enclosure in the city section, and rainbow and brown trout swim in a tank in the rivers section. Museum staff worked with local agencies, such as Tracy Aviary and the Department of Wildlife Resources, to devise the best ways to display live creatures — while also following the University of Utah’s guidelines for humanely handling live animals.

Digital stations allow museumgoers to learn through play. One matches people to the tree that most matches their personality; it’s called “Timber,” a pun taken from the dating app Tinder. Another invites people to sit at a simulated diner as a chef prepares dishes, like a salad of dandelion leaves, made from plants often considered to be weeds.

Artist Wendy Wischer contributes a video installation piece, “Written on the Wind,” that offers a calm oasis amid the bustle of information. It’s a circular room, with video projected all around, with cloud-like beanbag chairs on which people can sit and take it all in.

Wischer, an assistant professor of art and art history at the U., took footage from all around the state, from as far as Moab and as close as her yard. She also consulted with students at Riley Elementary School, on Salt Lake City’s west side, and had them create poems and drawings about the intangible benefits of nature.

“I had kind of a structure looking at 24 hours in 24 minutes,” Wischer said, adding that the film is not a strict time-lapse representation. “It’s all about how nature makes us feel.”

The exhibit also marks a milestone for NHMU, coming on the 50th anniversary of its opening in October 1969, in the George Thomas Building on the U.’s Presidents Circle. The museum moved to its current digs, in the Rio Tinto Center near Red Butte Garden, in 2011.

For a museum to last and evolve for a half-century, Thompson said, “I hope [that means] that we’ve become an integral part of the community, that we’re a resource for people trying to find connections with this amazing place that is Utah.”