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Exhibits add new life to U. museum

Carol Taller was explaining an exhibit of Ute Indian handicraft to Whittier Elementary pupils, who peered into the display case.

"How do you think that basket could hold water?" she asked.

"I think — it has no holes," said a second-grade girl.

That's right, said Taller, a docent from Sandy who was helping at the Utah Museum of Natural History. The basket's interior was lined with pine pitch, making it watertight.

A tribe member could boil stew inside the basket, she added. It was done not by hanging it over a fire, where it would burn, but by heating a rock in the fire and dropping the rock in the stew.

The impressed students were eyeing one of a set of new exhibits that are revamping the anthropology hall at the museum, located at the top of 200 South, University of Utah campus.

Not only are lives of the most ancient Utahns featured, but so are Indian tribes living here today.

Taller helped illustrate that when she discussed the Ute exhibit. "This is an example of Ute handicraft, and their lifestyle," she said. "And some of them are really old and some are new."

The display, provided by tribal members, shows the continuity of the Utes in Utah.

Last year, Indian tribes created museum displays for the "Utah's First Nations" exhibits, part of the Salt Lake Winter Olympics celebration. When the Olympics were over, neither the tribes nor museum officials wanted the displays taken down.

Instead, they are being shown along with new displays under construction. The revamping should be finished by April 26, and visitors can watch the work progress.

Recently completed was an exhibit of artifacts from the archaic period, including a 10,000-year-old spear point from Danger Cave, near Wendover. The hefty stone point is from the late Ice Ages.

"This is one of the very oldest figures we have in our collection," said Kathy Kankainen, the museum's anthropology collections manager, holding a small clay figure. The figurine, discovered during excavations of Cowboy Cave in Canyonlands National Park, dates to 6300 B.C.

"It's appropriate for us to test some new exhibit ideas before we invest a huge amount of money" in displays that will be constructed in a new museum building, said Sarah George, museum director.

Late last year, Congress appropriated $15 million for a new museum, adding to substantial private donations. The new building is planned south of Red Butte. George said it should be finished in about five years.

Before that, said Becky Menlove, interim exhibits manager, the idea is to update exhibits "without spending a ton of money."

Some extremely popular features of the anthropology hall, such as dioramas of ancient life and a huge pictograph mural, will remain. Other new exhibits will help explain the dry caves that are nationally known for the information they provide about early inhabitants.

"These dry cave sites in Utah are remarkable," said Menlove. "Some of the most fragile material has been preserved."

One of those artifacts going on display is a small deer figure, made of split twigs and discovered in Cowboy Cave. The cave was inhabited from time to time between 6300 B.C. and 500 A.D.

Another innovation is a custom-made steel storage case with a glass front. There visitors can see how museum treasures are protected. This case shows many beautifully crafted kachina dolls, most Hopi, one of them Zuni.

Each is made of a cottonwood root, said Jayne Fife, curator. The dolls were intended to teach children about the tribe's religious beliefs.

Vilah Jean Peterson, a docent from Salt Lake City who is in her 23rd year of volunteer work for the museum, helped arrange the kachinas in their cabinet. "Oh, everything gets more fabulous," she said of the new exhibits. "It's wonderful."