Jason Cryan had barely landed in his new job in March, as the new executive director of the Natural History Museum of Utah, when the world changed.
“My first three official acts on the job were to shut the place down, send the folks home, and assess for earthquake damage,” Cryan said recently. “And that was just the beginning.”
This week, after a summer dominated by COVID-19 and a roiling debate over systemic racism, Cryan is overseeing the reopening of the museum that tells the story of Utah’s natural world and how humans interact with it.
The museum’s new start is an example of the difficulties any organization — from a school district to a major sports league — faces in establishing “the new normal” in the age of COVID-19. For NHMU, Cryan said, it will require visitors and staff to think about safety at all times.
“We’re hoping that, even though there’s a change in mindset, the interactivity and the learning will remain,” he said.
NHMU announced Thursday that the opening date for the general public is set for Saturday; invited museum members and volunteers have been visiting since Monday.
Visitors will notice the first change before they set foot in the Rio Tinto Center on the University of Utah campus. All tickets will be sold in advance on the museum’s website, with reserved times to enter. That way, Cryan said, the museum will limit attendance to 300 people per day, and be able to keep them safely distanced while they tour the exhibits.
The front desk will have a plexiglass barrier between staff and patrons getting the QR codes scanned on their tickets (either printed at home, or on their smartphones). All employees and visitors over the age of 2, thanks to Gov. Gary Herbert’s executive order for all state-run buildings, will be required to wear masks.
At the desk, visitors will receive the tool that’s the key innovation of the museum’s COVID-19 safety plan: A rubber-tipped stylus.
Many of the museum’s exhibits are interactive — either with touch screens, or buttons to push, or rotating display panels — that visitors normally would touch with their hands.
“We’re transitioning many of our touchable elements in the galleries to a stylus,” Cryan said. “That’s going to reduce the amount of surface touching that visitors will engage in.”
Each visitor will hang on to his or her stylus throughout the museum tour. When the visitor leaves, he or she can take the stylus home, or deposit it in a container so it can be sanitized and reused.
For example, said Mark Ingalls, the museum’s information technology manager, the “Utah Futures” exhibit has been slightly reprogrammed. The interactive display, sort of a video game where visitors can rebuild the Salt Lake Valley from scratch, will have users double-tap an item with a stylus, rather than performing a drag-and-drop move with their fingers. Two of the five screens in the display room will be turned off so the three other players can remain 6 feet apart.
Circular information displays now have handles with holes drilled into them, into which a stylus can be inserted and the display turned. On one of the museum’s classic exhibits, which demonstrates how ancient Lake Bonneville might have filled the Salt Lake Valley with water, a button — pushable by a stylus — has replaced the old hand crank that pumped water into the model.
New signage will advise visitors to follow safety protocols — including following the one-way path marked through the museum. Hand sanitizer stations have been installed all around.
Some of the cool and fun interactive elements have been disabled completely, for safety’s sake. In the NHMU-created “Nature All Around Us” exhibit, several elements — including the prairie-dog tunnel that kids crawled through, a stationary bike that visitors pedaled, and a dress-up station with bug costumes — are out of commission because of COVID-19.
(“Nature All Around Us” was scheduled to close after Memorial Day, but will it remain open through Sept. 7 to make up for those missed weeks. The exhibit is being prepared for a national tour, in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota.)
The museum’s cafe and store will remain closed for the near future, Cryan said. “Even though we want to maintain a very important and high-quality visitor experience, there are certain amenities that we just can’t safely provide now,” he said.
Cryan said he and his staff — most of whom he still hasn’t met in person, only over video conference calls — have taken advantage of the shutdown to upgrade some displays.
California artist Susan Narduli’s “Land and Time,” a video installation that’s part of the museum’s entrance, is being revised with color footage of Utah natural wonders, displayed with new laser projection. And a relief map of Utah in the museum’s canyon-like central atrium has been remade by a Utah company, CreoTre, into a 3D printed version with hand-painted satellite imagery.
“The new map is going to amaze everyone,” Cryan said. “The work is just so incredibly detailed.”
While imagining the reopening, Cryan and his staff also have worked to continue the museum’s educational offerings online. “In some ways, we were very well-positioned to pivot our programs,” Cryan said.
One of the most popular offerings, Cryan said, is Research Quest Live. The program, adapted from a series of education modules for teachers to use in classrooms, now allows students working from home to interact with researchers and educators.
Cryan and his staff also have discussed how the museum can respond to the social upheaval and calls for racial equality that have swept the nation this summer. The museum issued a statement in June, stressing diversity as one of NHMU’s core values. Cryan said the museum is looking to tackle such issues going forward, though no firm plans have been made.
He points to the museum’s Native Voices exhibit, which highlights the history and current life of Utah’s first inhabitants. “We do talk about the indigenous population as a living, breathing culture, not just something from the past,” he said.
Cryan succeeds Sarah George, the museum’s executive director for nearly three decades. George spearheaded NHMU’s 2011 move from the dilapidated George Thomas Building on President’s Circle to the $102 million Rio Tinto Center, perched on the east bench overlooking the Salt Lake Valley. George left the museum to join the U.‘s advancement team, which attracts donors to the university.
Cryan is no stranger to Utah. He did two years of post-graduate work at Brigham Young University, continuing his studies in entomology — specifically, molecular phylogenetics, examining the evolution of insects using comparative DNA sequencing. After giving The Salt Lake Tribune a tour of the museum, he showed off two flat boxes with perfectly preserved insects from his years of studies in the tropics.
Cryan said he’s eager to reopen the museum’s doors, and get back to educating Utahns about what was here before them. And while he’s a self-described “bug guy,” he knows what big ancient creatures get the attention.
“It’s always been a kind of irony of my career: I want to promote all of the -ologies, all of those biologies,” Cryan said. “But people want to see the dinosaurs.”