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With its interactive displays and a mammoth art installation that responds to human touch, The Leonardo opened its doors Saturday morning to proclaim its unique status among Utah museums.

While the opening-hour crowd was modest at best — 20 waited at 11 a.m. near the north doors of the building that once housed the Salt Lake City Main Library — enthusiasts agreed that sparse numbers made the experience more intimate.

"We've been so excited about this that we thought the anticipation would be community-wide. Maybe people are still having coffee," said Phoenix Ostermann, 40, a Salt Lake City artist who brought her husband and three children. "How many cities launch a museum marrying art and science? Not many. This building could have ended up a parking lot, and that would have been a shame."

True to its namesake Renaissance man, The Leonardo began life in concept as an attempt to meld science, art and even current issues under one museum roof. The mix has proved popular in select cities that have launched similar efforts, such as San Jose's Tech Museum and San Francisco's Exploratorium.

The Leonardo's journey from concept to concrete reality wasn't easy. Its official opening date was twice delayed, once due in part to a dispute with the construction contractor. Mayor Ralph Becker, describing tense negotiations over millions in funding for the facility, compared the museum's travails to a "near-death experience."

Now finally open, even a text for one exhibit seemed to mirror The Leonardo's never-say-die tenacity.

Innovators, read an exhibit on prosthetic limbs, "keep searching until they forge a way — any way: up, out, or over."

Peter Giles, museum executive director, said that while the road to The Leonardo's opening was at times rocky, it was nothing compared to opening San Jose's Tech Museum, where he worked for 18 years. First conceived as an idea by Palo Alto's Junior League, that museum saw its first permanent home in 1998.

"What's happening in Salt Lake City is an inflection point in the evolution of museums," Giles said. "It's been a struggle, but an exhilarating one."

With sculptor and architect Phillip Beesley's stunning "Hylozoic Ground" installation holding court suspended from the ceiling, inaugural patrons percolated through the museum's two stories of exhibits. The "Earth Walk" virtual map offered aerial and geographic shots from above, searchable by the tap of a foot. An oversize sculpture by artist Amy Caron, once completed, will mimic algae cell walls. The interactive animation studio lets kids see their movements replicated by a variety of make-believe figures on computer screen.

Even the research environment gets translated into museum exhibit form, with a genetic lab on the second floor. It's here that University of Utah researchers hope to identify genetic markers for the ability to multi-task by collecting saliva samples from thousands of future donors who walk through The Leonardo's doors. Just spit in a sample cup.

"I thought it would just be swab," said Jason Smith, who makes his living in Salt Lake City as an investigator. "But you have to give up a good amount of spit."

Robert Weiss, a professor of human genetics at the University of Utah, said that while the setting is novel, it's a great introduction to genome sequencing, which is sure to become a bigger part of our lives as the science progresses. The anonymous test assigns bar codes to donors, who can check individual test results online, after they're compiled with others on the museum's distribution graph.

"We don't want people to think they can drive and talk on their cellphone at the same time if they do well on this test," Weiss said.

Exhibits also encompassed social issues. "This Light of Ours," a documentary photography exhibit about the 1960s civil rights struggle, was The Leonardo's most traditional exhibit, but also its most stirring.

"So far, everything is my favorite," said Xander Johnson, a 10-year-old from Centerville touring the museum with his father, Michael. "It's better than I expected."

Two hours, and plenty of exhibits later, Ostermann said her family was impressed beyond expectations. "It's fantastic, but we still have to get lunch," she said. "Then we'll be back for more."

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The Leonardo

Where • 209 E. 500 South, Salt Lake City

When • Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Fridays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Tuesdays

Info • Individual tickets $10-$14; general memberships, $28-$75; unlimited premium memberships $150-$500. Visit http://www.theleonardo.org for more information.

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