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December 18, 2014

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Full-court press

UNLV’s Barrick Museum tries to reinvent its game

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Bill Hughes

The Barrick: looking to attract more attention.

The Marjorie Barrick Museum of Natural History, tucked inside an average building on the UNLV campus, is the kind of place that can be hard to find even if you’re among the small percentage of Las Vegans who have been there before. I walked past it unknowingly, and then asked a couple of students if they knew where it was. They weren’t sure. Up ahead and take your first left?

I asked an older woman for directions. She had just left the Barrick and was practically swooning. “I’d never been there before,” she gushed. “It was great. It was fantastic.”

The museum, founded 40 years ago, is housed in the university’s original basketball gymnasium. A series of beige banners arranged in a herringbone pattern extend down from the ceiling and help swallow the room’s massive height and obscure the old-fashioned, round gym lights. A Rebels logo marks the center of the hardwood floor. If you can get past the rather mundane look, however—and if you don’t mind that the museum is often nearly empty—the Barrick is home to one of the largest collections of Pre-Columbian ethnographic art in the country.

The permanent collection, housed in colorful, if slightly outdated, display cases, includes Mexican masks, Guatemalan costumes, Paiute baskets and pottery. The Barrick also features rotating temporary exhibits—a photo collection about the Colorado River was recently featured. The museum is hardly a destination, but its collection belies the myth that Las Vegas is a cultural dead zone.

“No one’s really paid attention to us,” says Aurore Giguet, the museum’s program director. “We’re kind of sick of it.”

It’s hardly surprising most Las Vegans don’t know much about the small museum in the heart of the UNLV campus. But students, a captive audience looking to learn? They “just walk past it,” Giguet says.

Between 2,500 and 3,000 visitors come in every month. Giguet hopes to double those numbers. She wants nothing less than to reinvent the museum and raise its profile. She and her staff are determined to “make the museum more than what it is.”

Already, Giguet and her staff have expanded several exhibits. But the real goal is a top-to-bottom rehabilitation of its entire facility. The entrance would be relocated closer to the busy Lied Library. The exhibits would be gutted and modernized. And the usual modern museum accoutrements would be added, including a café and gift shop.

The Details

Barrick Museum of Natural History
4505 S. Maryland Parkway, 895-3381.

The museum commissioned UNLV’s Downtown Design Studio to envision what the future Barrick might look like, and the results are a radical rethinking that would instantly position it as a campus centerpiece. The gym roof would be opened up to natural light, and the museum would be surrounded by a new complex of buildings to consolidate space for dozens of departments with a disciplinary connection to the museum, from museum studies to archaeology. New twin towers, envisioned as a library and (somewhat optimistically) storage space, would be emblazoned with a graphic of a huge Paiute sundial. The design also features a large outdoor amphitheater protected by a solar-panelled roof. (The large wood model of this proposal will be featured as an exhibit this fall.)

It’s a fantastic vision—and who knows what an actual redesign would look like?—but re-creating the Barrick won’t come cheap (Giguet estimates around $5 million). The museum is still putting together an exact financial plan, but these are not exactly ideal economic times for unheralded museums to launch major expansions. The design studio is working to rebrand the museum’s identity, which is expected to help attract donors.

In the meantime, the Barrick will try to increase its presence on campus this fall with banners and fliers. And the museum will likely ditch the “natural history” portion of its name—with its dinosaur-bone flavor—for an identity focused on its more extensive holdings in cultural history. “We don’t want to be known as the museum of natural history,” Giguet explains. “That’s not where our strengths lies.”

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