Zion Human History Museum at Zion National Park began its existence in 1961 as a visitor center, one among many such centers built as part of the Mission 66 initiative to renew national parks.
By the early 1900s, the scenic qualities of the two-thousand-foot Navajo Sandstone cliffs in Zion Canyon had been recognized as a potential destination for tourism. In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt signed an executive order designating Mukuntuweap (Zion) National Monument in Zion Canyon. However, accessing the monument was difficult due to poor road conditions and no railway connection. In 1917, the Utah State Road Commission constructed a new highway which allowed motorists to reach the first visitor lodging in Zion Canyon, Wiley Camp. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson signed a congressional bill changing the name of the monument to Zion and designating it a National Park. In the 1930s, the newly completed Zion Mount Carmel highway allowed motorists access to travel through Zion to Bryce Canyon. The highway was one of the greatest engineering feats of its time and included a 1.1-mile tunnel through the vertical sandstone cliffs.
Staff at Zion National Park had been proposing a new information point in the late 1940s before the start of the Mission 66 program which funded the Park Service to establish new modern visitor centers that could accommodate new visitor demands after World War II. By the time President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill to fund the project, Zion Park Staff were no longer discussing whether a new hub was needed, but where it would be located. Controversy over where to locate the new building continued for a year as Park Service Director Conrad Wirth wanted to place it across the road from the museum located near the entrance of the park, but Zion Superintendent Paul Franke argued the main reason for a new setting was due to traffic and overcrowding on the main entry roadway. He argued that the new visitor center needed to be in an area that could accommodate the high volumes of park traffic without causing interference with the main road. The new location placed it outside of the canyon where natural beauty and scenic attractions could be incorporated into the design of the building.
Park Service designer Cecil Doty presented preliminary designs for the tourist point in 1957. During the next year, Doty's designs for the Zion Visitor Center were handed over to the architectural firm of Cannon and Mullen of Salt Lake City. Construction began in April 1959 but in October a steel strike delayed the modern steel framework in the lobby, and the architects were forced to change their material to aluminum in order to open on time. Cannon and Mullen completed construction in June 1960 and opened to the public that same month. The Park Service dedicated the Zion Visitor Center on June 17, 1961, a year after it had been open to the public. The construction features a large auditorium, exhibit room, lobby for visitors, and an office wing for the park employees. Designs in the lobby featured big glass windows that enabled visitors to view the surrounding canyons and encouraged them to walk outside onto the balcony to get a view of the beautiful mountain range. To blend the modern style of the center with its surrounding environment, the architects incorporated red stone veneers around the bathrooms and the top of the building. The Zion Visitor Center has been renovated and reopened as the Zion Human History Museum.
Since then, the Zion Visitor Center has been renovated and reopened as the Zion Human History Museum. The museum features permanent exhibits about people who once dwelled in what is now Zion National Park, including southern Paiutes and nineteenth-century pioneers, and about how the area became a national park. Temporary exhibits also offer a range of historic information about the park and its lands and people.