In early 2020, Moab locals and visitors can get a new look at Moab’s past when the museum reopens after an extended closure and exhibit reboot. Open houses are planned for February and March, with an official opening celebration to follow later in the spring. Exact dates have not yet been set.
Moab’s museum has been a local fixture for more than 60 years, though it has been known by several names over time. It first opened in 1958 as the Moab Museum. After Dan O’Laurie donated money to Grand County for a new museum building, the name was changed to Dan O’Laurie Canyon Country Museum and then shortened to Dan O’Laurie Museum. Later, O’Laurie’s name was dropped and it became known as Museum of Moab.
Recently it was renamed again, coinciding with the sweeping refresh of the museum’s building and exhibits.
“We thought that ‘Museum of Moab’ implied that whatever it did was only about Moab,” said Interim Executive Director Forrest Rodgers. “But since this new museum will emphasize stories from across the Colorado Plateau, we decided the name should reflect where it’s located.”
The “new” name is also the original: the Moab Museum.
“In fact, among objects you’ll see in the temporary exhibit about (early 20th century uranium pioneer) Howard Balsley are two of his Moab Museum membership cards,” Rodgers said.
The museum’s new tagline is “Small Museum, Big Stories,” reflecting a new focus on storytelling.
Rodgers said the museum used to be organized around categories like geology, paleontology and history, with many “objects and props” but without “a coherent theme that tied them all together.”
“Our new experience is organized around stories and uses objects to visually represent them,” Rogers said. “For example, the Spirit & Grit stories focus on Moab’s early years and feature Moab’s first piano and a handmade cottonwood plow.”
He added that “to showcase the Museum’s extensive collection of historic photos and oral histories, many people profiles will be told on iPads” and that the Visitor Services staff will “engage with visitors and amplify the stories with additional information and resources.”
Rodgers said that while the renovated museum is entirely new and distinct, there will be many familiar objects on display, though one may be sorely missed: the three-dimensional Urbanek relief map.
Rodgers said the map is “truly a work of art” and that, while some may be disappointed in its removal, it is both in “desperate need of conservation” and focused exclusively on Moab rather than the region more broadly.
Rodgers also said that the museum has improved the way it cares for and manages its collection.
“For the first time in a very long time, objects are being stored according to museum best practices using archival materials, and Collections records have been updated,” he said. “While the Museum houses many more objects than will be seen in this exhibit, families who’ve donated objects should know that their donations will be protected at the highest standards possible.”
Originally, Rodgers said, the museum had planned to relocate to a large, new building along the Colorado River. While facility and exhibit designs were being prepared, the museum’s Board of Trustees hired a campaign consulting firm to help develop a fundraising plan.
“The consultant essentially told the Board that they weren’t ready to begin a major fundraising campaign, and should begin by figuring out what the community wanted the Museum to be and become,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers said he was hired in early 2017 to conduct a community assessment to determine local attitudes and perceptions about the Museum, and especially what they thought of the idea of a new museum on the river.
“I interviewed more than 30 people – members, donors and funders, elected officials, and program partners like CFI – and evaluated the Museum’s financial position and fundraising capability,” he said. “We learned that…everyone believes in the inherent value of the Museum, but they wanted it to to tell a more complete and compelling story about Moab and the Canyonlands region.”
The interviews also revealed a community preference for the museum to stay downtown and focus on building the Board and staff rather than a new building.
“Most importantly, they wanted updated exhibits that tell stories about the history of people living on this landscape, and that are designed for both visitors and locals,” Rodgers said, adding that the Board deserves credit for listening to what the community had to say.
“It hired an experienced design team to re-imagine the exhibits and hired staff to increase attendance and membership, and begin engaging donors and donor prospects,” he said. “What began as a simple ‘refresh’ of existing exhibits morphed into a more ambitious plan to completely renovate the building, remove the central staircase and mezzanine, and expand Collections, Library and office space on the second floor.”
The museum closed for the remodel in September of 2018, though it has held events such as Tuesdays at the Museum presentations and the Pioneer Day ice cream social.
Rodgers added that he and others involved “really believe it sets a new baseline for the Museum and future exhibits.”
Rodgers said funding came from an unnamed donor’s “unrestricted gift to revitalize the Museum.” According to Rodgers, the cost to renovate the Grand County-owned building—including updating its technical infrastructure and completing the second floor—cost about $266,000. Exhibit design, fabrication, lighting and staff cost about $475,000. He noted that these were the “expenditures to date” and that the cost to complete fabrication and installation is estimated to be $150,000.
When the museum reopens, Curatorial and Collections Manager Tara Beresh will have oversight of the museum’s collections, including developing plans to digitize the historic photographs and archives. She will also write proposals for grants.
Beresh said she lived in Moab for eight years prior to leaving to obtain her master's degree in Public Archaeology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She returned to Moab to take the curator position with the Moab Museum.
“I know what this museum was, because I spent a year here (doing an internship),” she said. “I saw what could be improved and I wanted to be a part of that.”
Board President Dennis Brown said the renovation “is coming together slowly, but coming.”
“Changing 60 years of the past and heading in an entirely new direction I think is needed and is necessary for this institution to survive, to grow and inform into the 21st century,” he said.