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From the get-go, Sarah George, executive director of the Natural History Museum of Utah, scored big points with the Salt Lake County Council.

"I'm not here to ask for anything," she said, kicking off a report about the museum's first eight months at the new, $102.5 million Rio Tinto Center next to the University of Utah.

The council doesn't hear that message often.

Then George launched into a series of figures that illustrated how well the public has responded to the architecturally striking building and its splashy exhibits.

Since its mid-November debut, she said, the museum has attracted 240,000 visitors, 20 percent more than projected in its business plan.

More than 40,000 teachers and students — 23,000 from Salt Lake County — have been treated to the sights, smells and sounds of the state's diverse landscapes, current to ancient, in dioramas prominently displayed within the building's 51,000 square feet of exhibit space.

And, thanks to tax money from the county's Zoo, Arts and Parks program, George emphasized that an additional 13,000 patrons have taken advantage of free admission days to learn more about Utah's past.

These visitors come from all over, she said, but 64 percent call Salt Lake County home. Another 20 percent hail from other parts of Utah while the remaining 16 percent are from other states and countries.

These figures are of considerable interest to county officials. Their help was essential in propelling the project.

In 2010, county voters approved a $15 million bond for the museum, a key chunk of public funding supplemented by $25 million from the state. Rio Tinto also contributed $15 million, which included copper panels from Kennecott's Bingham Canyon mine.

"We had more than 500 donors overall," George said, "from the large gift from Kennecott to a $5 gift from a little girl who gave us her birthday money."

The museum's initial success came as little surprise to council members.

"It speaks for itself," Councilman Jim Bradley said. "It's a marvelous institution and venue."

Added Council Chairman David Wilde: "You're doing a great job."

George pledged that the museum will do even better in years to come.

In addition to its exhibits, the Rio Tinto Center boasts a climate-controlled environment that will allow it to serve as a repository for 1.2 million objects.

It took 1 ½ years to move all of these artifacts to the new museum from its old quarters in the James Talmage Building on the U.'s Presidents Circle.

Now that they are in place, those collections will be put on display periodically or made available to teachers for educational opportunities.

The museum is opening an exhibit this fall of contemporary Navajo baskets. When its run is done there, the exhibit will travel to museums nationwide.

"That's a great way to advertise what you can see when you come to Salt Lake City," George said.

For next summer, she added, the museum is also working with Utah emergency-management personnel on a "Nature Unleashed" exhibit on natural disasters.

mikeg@sltrib.comTwitter: @sltribmikeg —

By the numbers

$102.5 million • Cost of new Natural History Museum

240,000 • Visitors to new museum since November debut

23,000 • Salt Lake County teachers and students who visited the museum

13,000 • Patrons treated to free museum admission