118 East Center St. Moab, Utah
Moab is on the brink of two national parks: Arches and Canyonland. Driving south on US-191, Moab rests in the Spanish Valley surrounded by rock formations that are quintessential to every Utah postcard. The town's history runs the gamut: trading fort, internment camp, uranium mines, filming location, and its current phase as a tourist hub. Entering the town in winter, with hibernating hotels and empty parking lots, it's hard to imagine the hubbub of the summer tourist season that is alluded to by the "no bathing" signs in the grocery store restroom.
The Dan O'Laurie Museum of Moab is located a block west of the visitor center in a building that matches the landscape. Inside, the space is filled with a complex arrangement of storylines/histories about regional land use issues. Edward Abbey quotes are displayed next to a video of 4x4 jeeps treading over red rock. A photo of the Uranium Queen is in close proximity to a National Parks display. In one sense, there is honesty to all of these conflicting perspectives- history is never kind or consistent, and what one generation thinks is acceptable, the next will be aghast by. On the other hand, so much contrasting information presented in such a small space leaves the feeling that the town is pregnant with identities and yet, still devoid of one.
Alongside these displays, the museum does leave access for the community to contribute to the narrative of their town. In the first room, among dinosaur bones and Jurassic timelines, are hand painted panels. These panels are endearingly informative. The dinosaur room is like a small natural science center crafted with care and filled with both physical and conceptual treasures.
The most ambitious of these community contributions is a topographical map that sits in one of the front rooms. John Urbanek started the balsa wood relief map in 1985 to "allow visitors in our community to get an aerial view of Moab without a plane". John took 20 years to complete the project and in doing so provided a perspective of the landscape that is typically reserved for birds and those with enough money to do aerial tours. As if the relief wasn't enough, John took the time to draw in roads and railroad tracks and then completed the installation with light switches to mimic sunrise, midday and sunset. To make the relief map, John drew upon years of working for the National Parks Service and his love of exploring new trails and roads. This physical "knowing" of the region allowed him to distill down the expansive into something manageable.
The significance of this map goes beyond just the time it took and details within it. It inserts hand craftsmanship into the realm of geography and how we read the landscape. Like a chair or a mug, the relief map doesn't truly become finished until someone uses it. If John had made the map and just left it in his house, it would not have reached its full potential. It needs the interaction of people looking at it, playing with the lights and figuring out where they are in relation to the landscape in order for the map to be completely realized. The museum becomes the access point for that and so there is a symbiotic relationship between the relief map and the museum that houses it. Outside of all of that, the relief map just evokes a basic awe. Someone spent years making this with their own hands so that we could see how canyons, rivers and mountains roll over the land.