That's changing with something called the Temporary Museum of Permanent Change, a revolutionary project designed to document and embrace the shifting face of Utah's capital. Still in its planning stages, the museum will occupy no building, employ no guides and house no permanent displays. Instead it will encourage visitors and residents to see the city's downtown as one giant exhibit demonstrating our culture's constant need to evolve.
"It's the first of its kind in the world. It's a museum without walls," said former Salt Lake City planner Stephen Goldsmith, who dreamed up the amorphous project four months ago. "The downtown is the museum."
Goldsmith and his partners, photographer John Schaefer and graphic designer Gilberto Schaefer (the two aren't related), plan to launch the Temporary Museum of Permanent Change next month. They expect it to last four years, paralleling the construction phase of the LDS Church's 20-acre City Creek Center, which will replace the Crossroads and ZCMI Center malls and is slated to open in 2011.
The museum project has the backing of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Alliance, which have kicked in $30,000 in seed money. Now Goldsmith and his colleagues are seeking corporate sponsors.
The money will pay for sidewalk exhibits, such as posters printed with colorful stories about downtown from people who live, work or play in the city center. Goldsmith and company already have gathered stories from construction workers digging a tunnel under North Temple and from youths who ride TRAX to the University of Utah, then ride their skateboards back down the hill to downtown.
Among other museum projects under discussion: a large Main Street video screen that would show short films shot by Utah youths; a giant "scrapbook" of community memorabilia affixed to construction-site walls; displays of artifacts unearthed by construction workers; and a taco-cart competition to find downtown's best street taco.
All these efforts and more will be chronicled on a Web site, www.museumofchange.org, scheduled to launch Saturday6/23. The site also will show photos and video documenting the progress of downtown construction projects, including the implosion of the Key Bank tower and the expansion of the Moss courthouse.
Through the Web site, museum planners also will solicit ideas from city residents for downtown events. In this way, its founders hope to spark civic dialogue and inspire Utahns to take a more active role in the future of their capital.
"The most exciting thing about [the museum] is empowering people to understand that they are the community," says John Schaefer, founder-director of the Children's Media Workshop, a Utah nonprofit that teaches visual literacy. "That's why all of our T-shirts have the word STAFF on them."
Museum founders hope their project will strengthen connections between downtown Salt Lake City and its people while reinvigorating the city's once-thriving Main Street corridor, which has struggled in recent decades with abandoned storefronts and near-deserted sidewalks.
"It could really be possible to re-animate the streets," says Swiss native Gilberto Schaefer, who moved to Utah in 1968. "But it can't be just a hollow marketing ploy. It needs to have some meat to it."
Goldsmith and the Schaefers acknowledge that their museum, as a somewhat abstract concept, is difficult to articulate. But they point to the ephemeral 337 Project, in which 150 artists recently turned a condemned Salt Lake building into a giant art installation and attracted thousands of gawkers, as an example of Utahns' hunger for fresh urban thinking. Early reaction to the Temporary Museum of Permanent Change has been enthusiastic and people are talking about doing similar projects in other cities, Goldsmith says.
"It's about how we grow into the future," says Goldsmith, whose work spearheading the original Artspace project expanded the definition of Salt Lake City's downtown. "This is a teachable moment [in city history]. Let's learn from it. Let's have some fun with these changes. Let's make sure we make choices that build a city of lasting value."