Within the first decade of the initial Mormon settlement of Utah in 1847, plans were discussed for the establishment of a museum. The Universal Scientific Society was formed in 1854 to promote “a museum, library and reading room” in Salt Lake City. In the autumn of 1855 two French scientists spent a month in Utah. Their report commented that the “Mormons have for some time been occupied by the idea of founding a universal museum. They have already got together a considerable quantity of objects.” The United States government was also interested in the flora, fauna, and geography of the new lands that were being opened up and, in fact, had sent expeditions into the territory beginning in 1843 J.C. Frémont. Specimens collected were deposited with the sponsoring surveys, agencies, and museums in Washington, D.C., where many are still preserved today.
In 1869 John W. Young, son of Brigham Young, established a museum near Temple Square as a private venture. The one-story adobe building was initially known as the Salt Lake City Museum and Menagerie, and it included a variety of live native animals as well as a cageful of monkeys. It ultimately became the Deseret Museum, from which other Utah museums would spin off or benefit from by obtaining some of its collections.
The Desert Museum’s first caretaker was Guglielmo Sangiovanni, who was succeeded by Joseph L. Barfoot in 1870. In 1871 the museum and curator Barfoot, without the menagerie, moved into other quarters. Exhibits focused on home manufactures, minerals, fossils, prehistory, and items of Mormon Church history. Ownership of the museum passed to the Mormon Church in 1878. Dr. James E. Talmage, a scientist and president of LDS College, became the first professional curator in 1891 and served until the museum’s dissolution in 1918. At that time the collections were divided up, with the taxidermied animals and some prehistoric items going to Brigham Young University, the geological specimens and some animals to the University of Utah, and the bulk of the pioneer historical material being retained by the church.
The church collections resided in Temple Square’s Bureau of Information until 1976, and were later transferred in 1983 to the newly built Museum of Church History and Art immediately west of Temple Square. This building currently houses extensive collections and exhibits. The museum is part of the LDS Church’s Arts and Sites Division which also oversees other historic Mormon sites in the United States.
Two organizations have been instrumental in museum developments; they are the Daughters of Utah Pioneers (DUP) and the Sons of Utah Pioneers (SUP). The DUP was formally chartered in 1901 and sought to find a permanent home for its pioneer collections, starting a fund-raising effort toward this goal in 1911. With their own resources and additional state support, construction of the Pioneer Memorial Museum near the State Capitol Building was completed in 1950. The state-owned building is occupied on a 99-year lease. According to art historian Dr. Robert Olpin, “they own and maintain one of the most extensive pioneer art collections in the nation.” The DUP is organized by counties, and is further divided into “camps,” many of which maintain small one-room relic halls in towns throughout the state.
The Sons of Utah Pioneers was organized in 1933. Its “collection” began in 1934 and was actually attributable to the Horace Sorensen family, who provided substantial funding and space. The Sorensens assembled an important collection of pioneer vehicles, railroad stock, equestrian equipment, structures, guns, etc., which was located in the East Millcreek area of Salt Lake City, where it was known as Pioneer Village. The collection itself was deeded to the SUP in 1955, and was later sold to the owners of Lagoon Amusement Park in Farmington, where it has remained since 1976 as a commercial attraction.
The Utah State Historical Society was founded in 1897, and later joined with the Utah Division of State History, a state agency. The division took on its museum mission when it moved into Salt Lake’s historic Rio Grande Railroad Depot in 1980. Its collection is known as the Utah State History Museum, and has expanded considerably in a few short years, particularly in non-Mormon material culture. Various other state agencies/entities have contributed to the growth of exhibits, museums, and collections in Utah; they include the Utah Arts Council, the Utah Division of State Parks, and the state’s several universities and colleges.
The Salt Lake Art Association was formed in 1881 through the efforts of Alice Merrill Horne. From this beginning, the “Alice Art Collection” grew into the Utah Art Institute, founded in 1899. Annual purchases of exhibition works through the years have resulted in the core of a respectable state art collection under the aegis of the Utah Arts Council, which maintains gallery spaces.
Utah’s first state park, the old Territorial Capitol Building in Fillmore, was opened in 1930. It was the predecessor of eight more interpretive state park sites/museums now managed by the Division of State Parks. Their specific designations (and locations) are Anasazi (Boulder), Edge of the Cedars (Blanding), Camp Floyd/Stagecoach Inn (Fairfield), Fremont Indian (twenty miles southwest of Richfield), Iron Mission (Cedar City), Pioneer Trail (Salt Lake City), and Utah Field House of Natural History (Vernal). Subjects range from dinosaurs to prehistoric humans to pioneers and early military history.
In 1892 the University of Utah emerged from the University of Deseret, absorbing parts of the earlier institution. Museum collections were primarily for teaching purposes. Some were assembled by Dr. Talmage, who, in addition to holding a university chair in geology, continued to curate the Deseret Museum collection previously mentioned. Departmental scientific collections were developed from the turn of the century on, the most spectacular being a huge array of dinosaur bones quarried by the university at Jensen, Utah, in 1924. The Earth Science Museum, located in a remodeled university cafeteria, was built in the early 1930s to showcase the dinosaur materials. Another departmental museum in the Anthropology department was constructed in 1950 in a World War II army mess hall adjacent to Fort Douglas. Both museums, which were closed in 1969, were essentially the forerunners of the Utah Museum of Natural History. The Fort Douglas Military Museum, founded in 1974, located on the original fort property, is operated cooperatively by the Utah National Guard and the university, the landowner.
The Utah Museum of Natural History was established at the University of Utah by the legislature in 1963. This state museum, opened in 1969 in the former George Thomas Library, features anthropological, biological, and geological materials in a unified program of exhibits, education, and research. Specimens include those from the Deseret Museum as well as from the Charles Nettleton Strevell Museum that was located in the old Lafayette School on South Temple Street from 1939 until 1947.
Efforts to establish a Utah Museum of Fine Arts go back to the days of Alice Merrill Horne. The University of Utah created the UMFA in 1951 with its acquisition of the art collection of former Utahn, Mrs. Richard Hudnut. Its collection was housed originally in the Park Building; a new building for the museum was constructed as part of the Art and Architecture Center and opened in 1970. Greatly expanded and valuable collections coupled with a program of major traveling exhibitions have established it as the premier art museum in the state.
Several other museums associated with the state should be mentioned. The Prehistoric Museum at the College of Eastern Utah in Price was founded in 1961 and has doubled its space with the construction of a new facility in 1991. Its exhibits and collections focus on the Central Utah region in the fields of anthropology and paleontology. Weber State University’s Museum of Natural Science in Ogden was founded in 1969 and serves primarily as a teaching museum in the areas of biology and geology. Farther north in Logan, the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, founded in 1982 and located at Utah State University (USU), features traveling exhibits and exhibitions from its contemporary and Native American collections. USU’s Man and His Bread Museum, founded in 1959, features agricultural equipment and buildings, from circa 1840 to 1950, in an off-campus outdoor farm setting.
The Salt Lake Art Center, originally known as the “Art Barn,” was founded in 1931 near the University of Utah. An art school and gallery in the beginning, this private organization moved to the county-owned Salt Palace complex in 1979. Its collections and exhibitions focus on contemporary art.
While many museum efforts have been centered in the Salt Lake Valley, developments have taken place elsewhere in the state. Moab established a museum in 1958; currently known as the Dan O’Laurie Museum, it features the prehistory, history, and geology of the area. In Green River, the John Wesley Powell River History Museum was opened in 1990. This was followed in 1991 by the Museum of the San Rafael, in Castle Dale, whose theme is the natural history of Emery County. The Western Mining and Railroad Museum was established in Helper in 1964. A counterpart, the Tintic Mining Museum, was founded in Eureka in 1973. The Fairview Museum of History and Art in Sanpete County was founded in 1966; it displays historical artifacts and models of sculptor Avard Fairbanks. As is the case with most small Utah museums, these organizations are manned by volunteers.
In Utah County, the state’s second most populous, the Springville High School Art Gallery was begun in 1903. Later named the Springville Museum of Art when its building was dedicated in 1937 as a community facility, it holds a broad representative collection of the works of Utah artists. Also in Utah County, under the auspices of Brigham Young University a number of museum facilities have developed over the years in Provo. Beginning in 1965, the BYU art department assumed curation of collections in galleries of the Harris Fine Arts Center. This important collection, rich in Utah, American, European, and Oriental art, moved into a major new facility known as the Museum of Art at BYU in 1993. In 1978, the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum was founded and initially built around the hunting trophies of its namesake and benefactor; the museum also has other exhibits and curates valuable scientific collections. Anthropological materials, some from the Deseret Museum, are curated in the off-campus Museum of Peoples and Culture. Important fossils collections, especially dinosauria, under the care of the geology department occupy a separate campus building known as the “Ossuary.”
In downtown Provo, unrelated to BYU, is the private McCurdy Historical Doll Museum, established in 1979. To the north of Provo in Lehi is the private Hutchings Museum of Natural History, an eclectic collection established in 1955.
The Ogden Union Station Museum opened in 1978; its holdings include railroad memorabilia as well as the significant Browning firearms collection and the Browning-Kimball Car Museum. The Eccles Community Art Center, housed in one of Ogden’s historic mansions, focuses on local and Utah art. At nearby Roy, the new Hill Air Force Base Museum has an outstanding collection of aircraft and artifacts. The Brigham City Museum-Gallery, north of Ogden, was founded in 1970 and focuses its exhibits on art, handicrafts, and local pioneer history.
Space limitations prevent listing the many worthwhile Utah organizations that provide historic, cultural, aesthetic, or natural history experiences. In the Salt Lake Valley and environs the Wheeler Historic Farm, the Hansen Planetarium, the Children’s Museum of Utah, Tracy Aviary, Red Butte Gardens and Arboretum, and Hogle Zoo should be mentioned. In Park City, the Kimball Art Center and the Park City Museum are also worth visiting.
Utah’s museums have developed because of the desire of its citizens, educators, and community leaders to preserve the state’s heritage of diverse culture, art, and unique natural history. This has been accomplished with minimal public resources. The movement has been enhanced and facilitated by a strong Utah Museums Association, founded in 1972.
Donald V. Hague