Natural History Museum of Utah digs into the vaults for ‘Behind the Scenes’ event

(Photo courtesy of Natural History Museum of Utah) Christy Bills, invertebrate collections manager at the Natural History Museum of Utah, examines a collection of large moths. The museum will show some of its rarely seen specimens in its annual "Behind the Scenes" event, Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 16-17, 2019, at the museum, 301 Wakara Way, Salt Lake City.

In 1871, someone picked up the skull and horn of a musk ox from the ground near the corner of State Street and North Temple in downtown Salt Lake City.

That skull and horn are believed to be the first specimens accepted into a collection for what would become, in 1969, the Natural History Museum of Utah — and they will be among the rarely seen items on display this weekend at the museum’s annual “Behind the Scenes” look at its treasures.

The event happens Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 16-17, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the museum, in the Rio Tinto Center at 301 Wakara Way, on the University of Utah campus. Standard admission applies: $14.95 for adults; $12.95 for people age 65 and up, and for young adults (13 to 24); $9.95 for children (3 to 12); free for children 2 and under, museum members, and University of Utah students, faculty and staff (with valid ID).

This year’s event is special, museum officials say, as it also marks NHMU’s 50th anniversary.

“What a wonderful opportunity we have to share all the amazing work that has transpired since 1969,” said Becky Menlove, the museum’s interim director and associate director of visitor experience.

Christy Bills, NHMU’s invertebrate collections manager, said in a news release that visitors will see “a host of special surprises coming out of storage.” Her entomology department will show specimens from the museum’s history — including such popular items as tropical butterflies, silk moths and insects native to Utah — along with current student work.

Other items that will be on display for the two-day event:

  • Photographs and artifacts from the James H. Gunnerson expedition, published 50 years ago, examining sites in Range Creek. The archaeology lab staff also will talk about ongoing research in the area.

  • The Garrett Herbarium will feature work and field notes by its first curator, Lois Arnow, who also wrote a field guide of plants along the central Wasatch Front.

  • From the paleontology collections, late Jurassic specimens discovered in Utah in 1859. Paleontologists also will discuss current efforts to excavate specimens from the same site, using rock climbing equipment and a helicopter.

  • The vertebrate-zoology department will display some of its earliest and most important research specimens, and Eric Rickart, the department’s curator, will be on hand to prepare small mammals for the collections.

Collections in NHMU have come from all over in the last 50 years. Bills recently received a letter from a woman whose grandfather, a Utah postal service worker named Ezra R. Day, had collected and meticulously described some 5,000 specimens he had collected between 1937 and 1979. Day died in 1980, and the family later donated his collection to NHMU.

Bills posted the woman’s letter on Twitter on Monday. It read, in part: “We’d walk along and he’d point out the different plants, then we’d stop and he’d study the rocks and dirt, explaining to me about how old they are, then we’d pick up some rocks and settle in for him to watch the bugs, and he’d explain what bugs they were and why they lived where they lived, etc. So, I really appreciate someone that loves my grandpa’s knowledge and dedication as much as I do.”

While looking back, the museum is also looking forward. NHMU recently launched a five-year project to create a system to handle its digital assets, using the digital infrastructure of the U.’s J. Willard Marriott Library.

“Imagine what a non-analog researcher could do in 100 years. How will they access information? Will it be on computers or on a format not yet imagined?” Robin-Élise Call, NHMU’s digital assets manager, said in a statement. “By using best practices to preserve the vast quantity of digital material we create, the museum will be in a position to expand access through new technologies.”

The “Behind the Scenes” event used to be called “What’s in the Basement?” in a reference to the museum’s original location in the basement of the George Thomas Building on Presidents Circle at the U. The name was changed after the museum moved into the new Rio Tinto Center in 2011.