Church History Museum Closing for Yearlong Renovation

Contributed By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 6 October 2014

Media photograph the death masks of Joseph and Hyrum Smith being taken down at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City, September 24, 2014. Thirty years after its original opening, the Church History Museum will close on October 6, 2014, for one year for major renovations. The museum will reopen in the fall of 2015 with a newly designed floor plan and exhibitions.  Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

Article Highlights

  • The Church History Museum is closing for a yearlong renovation.
  • The Covenant Restored exhibit, which has been in the museum for 25 years, will be replaced with a new showcase.
  • The museum will accept walk-in visitors through Sunday, October 5.

“We pray that this building, added to those on Temple Square, may become an attraction to great numbers of people, not only to members of the Church but to legions of others in this community and to visitors far and near.” —President Gordon B. Hinckley, 15th President of the Church

In its 30th anniversary year, the Church History Museum is being closed for a yearlong renovation and the removal of one major exhibit to be replaced with another.

Located directly west of Temple Square at 45 N. West Temple in downtown Salt Lake City, the museum, the Church’s flagship facility for displaying art and historical artifacts, will close October 6 and will reopen in the fall of 2015 with a new floor plan and a major new Church history exhibit called The Heavens Are Open. Coinciding with the reopening will be the opening of the museum’s 10th international art competition.

News media representatives were given a preview September 24 of the plans.

“For those of us who are a little older, it seems absolutely impossible it’s been open for 30 years,” said Elder Steven E. Snow of the Seventy, Church Historian and Recorder, at the news conference.

He quoted the words of President Gordon B. Hinckley, then a counselor in the First Presidency, at the building’s dedication 30 years ago: “We pray that this building, added to those on Temple Square, may become an attraction to great numbers of people, not only to members of the Church but to legions of others in this community and to visitors far and near” and that an increased appreciation for the Lord’s work would result.

“Well, his words truly have been fulfilled,” Elder Snow remarked, adding that more than 7.5 million visitors have come to the museum over the years from throughout the world. He said there have been 108 exhibits in the 30 years the museum has been open, “featuring a wide variety of art, artifacts, and historical themes.”

Art collections of Minerva Teichert, LeConte Stewart, and others have been featured, and faith-promoting stories have been told, he said. “While we’re saddened about the closing for a year, we’re very excited about the prospects for the future, and we do intend to open before October general conference in 2015,” he said.

The Heavens Are Opened exhibit, to be located on the main level, will replace the The Covenant Restored, which has been viewed by nearly 7 million visitors since it opened about 25 years ago.

The death masks of Joseph and Hyrum Smith are taken down at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City Wednesday, September 24, 2014. Thirty years after its original opening, the Church History Museum will close on October 6, 2014, for one year for major renovations. The museum will reopen in the fall of 2015 with a newly designed floor plan and exhibitions. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Elder Steven E. Snow speaks at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City Wednesday, September 24, 2014. Thirty years after its original opening, the Church History Museum will close on October 6, 2014, for one year for major renovations. The museum will reopen in the fall of 2015 with a newly designed floor plan and exhibitions. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

Items are displayed at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City Wednesday, September 24, 2014. Thirty years after its original opening, the Church History Museum will close on October 6, 2014, for one year for major renovations. The museum will reopen in the fall of 2015 with a newly designed floor plan and exhibitions. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

Museum director Alan Johnson said the new exhibit will consist of eight separate sections covering the history of the Church from Joseph Smith’s First Vision in 1820 through the forced exodus of the Church’s members from Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1846. By contrast, the old exhibit covered Church history through the Utah period, almost up to the present day.

“So it will be a shorter number of years, but with better treatment and more space, to really tell more about the people, more about the interactions of the early members of the Church,” Brother Johnson said in a Church News interview two days prior to the news conference.

“There will be a Great Awakening section,” he said. “There will be a section that tells about the Smith family and Joseph’s upbringing, leading up to the First Vision.”

Literally at the center of the exhibit will be what is to be called the Vision Theater, “which will be like experiencing the First Vision as if you were in the grove watching it unfold, about a five- to six-minute-long movie.”

But it won’t be a conventional motion picture.

“It’s going to be a 240-degree surround experience, as if you were actually in the scene watching the vision happen,” Brother Johnson explained.

“Then, as patrons leave the theater, they will go into the beginning of Joseph being called as a prophet, the development of the Book of Mormon, the printing press from the Grandin Building, then talking about the Book of Mormon going forth and flooding the earth.”

Other sections will show Church history in the Missouri and Ohio periods, featuring mockups of the Newell K. Whitney store in Kirtland, Ohio, and the Liberty Jail in Missouri, where Joseph and his companions were imprisoned on unjust charges.

The martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith will be recounted as well, with the display of the death masks made of the two brothers within 24 hours after they were assassinated by a mob at the jail in Carthage, Illinois. The masks have been a popular item among museum visitors over the years.

In fact, at the news conference, the “de-installation” of the death masks was performed as news media representatives watched. They will be “properly crated and stored for a year with every other artifact that you see in this exhibit,” said Kurt Graham, senior curator and a former director of the museum.

“Those death masks are probably among the most important artifacts that we have in the entire Church collection,” Brother Graham said. “We don’t really have a Mona Lisa in the Church collection; there’s not one thing that people will flock from all over the world to see. But the death masks are the closest thing we have to that.

“And the significance for Latter-day Saints is that the eyes that stood behind those masks saw the Lord. That is very literal and is as close as many people will ever come to that important moment in our history.”

Brother Graham said the masks are the only known original copies that came from molds taken by George Q. Cannon, “who had an understanding of this process,” as the bodies lay in the Mansion House in Nauvoo.

Other death masks have been made from molds taken from these original masks, Brother Graham explained. He added that death masks and life masks were a common method of preserving the likeness of prominent individuals in that day, when photography was still in its infancy. Paintings and sculptures could later be made using the masks as reference, as has been done with Joseph and Hyrum Smith.

In addition to the new exhibit, the museum store will be enlarged and updated, and escalators will be removed and replaced with stairs, Brother Johnson said.

He said the theater in the lower level will be updated to accommodate Internet streaming of events into and out of the facility.

The Presidents Gallery, a popular feature highlighting each of the past Presidents of the Church, is the only element of the museum that will remain unaltered, he said.

The museum is accepting walk-in visitors through Sunday, October 5, the date of its closure.

For more information and to follow updates during the closure period, visit history.lds.org/museum or call 801-240-4615.