Church History Museum Reopens

Contributed By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 2 October 2015

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland cuts the ribbon for the reopening of the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, September 29, 2015.  Photo by Stacie Scott.

Article Highlights

  • After a year of extensive renovation, the Church History Museum has reopened.
  • Elder Jeffrey R. Holland performed the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
  • The museum features a new exhibit containing state-of-the-art, interactive displays and Church artifacts.

“A sense of honor and respect for the past, a respect for history, is essential to any truly civilized society, and as such it has always been an important part of the Church.” —Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve

After a year of extensive renovation and 31 years after its dedication, the Church History Museum west of Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City reopened September 29 with a new, state-of-the-art, long-term exhibit focusing on the Joseph Smith period of the history of the Church, 1820 to 1846.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles cut a ribbon in the lobby of the facility before a small gathering of invited guests and news media representatives, and the museum was opened the next morning to the public.

“A sense of honor and respect for the past, a respect for history, is essential to any truly civilized society, and as such it has always been an important part of the Church,” Elder Holland said in brief remarks. He added that a museum was planned for the Church as early as 1843 in Nauvoo, Illinois, and, after they settled the Salt Lake Valley, the Mormon pioneers continued that quest with piecemeal beginnings from which “this marvelous, refurbished museum of Church history now stands and shines.”

He said that when President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated the building in 1984, he foresaw that “unnumbered multitudes of people will visit this museum in years to come, and their appreciation for the builders of the past will be enhanced.”

“All of that has proven prophetically true,” Elder Holland declared. “This remodeling—and an entirely new exhibit entitled The Heavens Are Opened—does just that, just exactly what President Hinckley proposed the museum should do. This particular iteration and the displays that you will see employ cutting-edge technology to accurately tell the early years of our story to all that come through those doors.”

A “signature piece” of the new exhibit, Elder Holland said, “is a particularly moving account of Joseph Smith’s First Vision of the Father and the Son. It is portrayed in a special theater created for just that purpose with both sight and sound enveloping the visitor as if we too had been in the Sacred Grove that day.”

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland speaks before the ribbon cutting for the reopening of the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, September 29, 2015. Photo by Stacie Scott.

He said the text for the six-minute film “is gleaned from several of the Prophet’s firsthand accounts of the vision, adding substantially to the account we have known over the years,” referring to the canonized account, Joseph Smith—History in the Pearl of Great Price.

“That is just one wonderful example of what our new exhibition holds for visitors who come,” he said.

A stained-glass display depicts Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, appearing in the Sacred Grove. The display is part of a new exhibit, The Heavens Are Opened, in the newly renovated Church History Museum. Photo by Stacie Scott.

The presentation Elder Holland spoke of is in an enclosed area of the exhibit called the Vision Theater, which has a circular screen having a 220-degree viewing angle and 204 channels of surround sound audio. Ambient sounds were recorded from the actual Sacred Grove at Palmyra, New York.

More than just a film presentation, “it’s a sensory experience,” said Reid Neilson, assistant Church historian and recorder and managing director of the Church History Department, during a walk-through tour of the exhibit given to the Church News.

“People go in there and have that viewing moment in which they’re brought face to face with this idea that Joseph saw the Father and the Son,” he said.

At the conclusion of the portrayal, the viewer has the sensation of being lifted up from the grove, above the treetops, and having an aerial perspective of the surrounding valley, including the Smith family farmhouse.

The new exhibit replaces one that had been in the museum for 30 years. “It tried to tell almost the entire story of the Restoration,” Brother Neilson said, “so you had the Joseph Smith story, the pioneers’ trek west, the diaspora, a bit of the international Church, Sunday worship, temple worship—you had the whole thing.”

By contrast, the new exhibit focuses just on the Joseph Smith period, he said, “so you get much richer content and a much deeper dive into the stories of the Restoration.”

The old exhibit “was marvelous, and it focused on ‘the covenant restored,’ and there was a small section on Joseph Smith,” he said. “But I remember someone making the comment that they could go through the museum and not really appreciate the significance of the First Vision.”

By contrast, the new exhibit endeavors to show that the First Vision was the centerpiece of the Restoration, he said, “the fact that there is a Father and a Son and They appeared to a boy, that They do answer prayers.”

Among items Brother Neilson highlighted was the actual press from which the first publication of the Book of Mormon emanated. In Palmyra, New York, visitors can go into the building of the print shop proprietor, E. B. Grandin, but the press there is a replica, he said. That highlights the difference between a museum and a visitors’ center, he said, with a museum containing objects that, for the most part, are real rather than replicated.

The Grandin printing press that was used to produce the first 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon in Palmyra, New York, is on display. Photo by Welden C. Andersen.

Alyssa, Kaya, Chris, Karie, and Rod Chambers check out the new exhibit, The Heavens Are Opened, which displays the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at the reopening of the Church History Museum on Tuesday, September 29, 2015. Photo by Stacie Scott.

“Something you’ll get as you walk through the museum is the fact that we’ve tried to integrate the recent Gospel Topics essays on LDS.org in everything we do,” Brother Neilson said. Thus, there are forthright presentations about such topics as the translation process for the Book of Mormon, involving an image of the seer stone used by the Prophet; plural marriage and its implications for the Latter-day Saints; and Church members’ encounters with violent persecution in Missouri and how they reacted to it.”

“We talk about different versions of the First Vision that were given to different audiences for different needs,” he said. “So we’ve really tried to integrate our best scholarship and thinking through all the exhibits that you see so that no one comes here and gets a different understanding than they would get online or with the Joseph Smith Papers volumes or back in Harmony, Pennsylvania, at the new visitors’ center there. It’s an integrated storytelling.”

Brother Neilson pointed out the blending of artwork with display artifacts, showing the various events of the Joseph Smith period, some of it newly commissioned for the exhibit.

“There are a lot of multimedia presentations, touch screens—lots of attractions for children and the rising generation to teach them in ways that they’re familiar with, through media, through quotes, through interactive maps,” he said.

“You might come in and spend 20 minutes here just browsing and seeing the marvelous artifacts. Or you may come in later and spend an hour just looking at the touch screens. There are so many different levels of detail.”

Discussions in the planning stages pertained to whether to have a separate children’s area within the exhibit, he said. The decision was made, rather, to make it an integrated experience for families.

For example, a display pertaining to Joseph’s obtaining of the gold plates contains a representation of a hollowed log, one of the hiding places the Prophet used for the plates. It is large enough that a child can crawl into it and see windows representing other hiding places that were used for the plates.

Activities in the renovated Church History Museum are designed for guests of all ages. Photo by Welden C. Andersen.

A display on the translation of the Book of Mormon offers a hands-on experience in which the visitor can write down a dictated passage from the book as one of Joseph Smith’s scribes might have experienced it, having to pause periodically to dip the electronic “quill pen” into a simulated ink well. Or the visitor can make a rubbing with crayon of an object underneath to get an understanding of the process by which the Book of Mormon was printed.

Interactive space in the Church History Museum allows guests to try their hand at being a scribe of the Book of Mormon. Photo by Welden C. Andersen.

Another portion of the exhibit is a replica of the visitors’ center cut-away reconstruction of the jail dungeon in Liberty, Missouri, where Joseph and his companions were confined for five months beginning in 1839. The visitor can actually step inside the dungeon—re-created with authentic dimensions—and experience what it might have been like. Air conditioning vents are placed so as to simulate the likely temperature in the dungeon during those winter months, Brother Neilson said.

A display on the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith at Carthage Jail in Illinois is carefully planned, Brother Neilson said. “We did not want to make it a mausoleum or focus too much on the death of the Prophet,” he said. “At the same time, some of the most interesting and important artifacts we have are the death masks of Joseph and Hyrum that were displayed in the earlier exhibit and provide the best and most accurate visual image of what Joseph and Hyrum looked like.”

Some of the most interesting and important artifacts in the Church History Museum are the death masks of Joseph and Hyrum Smith; they provide the best and most accurate visual image of what they looked like. Photo by Stacie Scott.

Those are displayed in the new exhibit, along with clothing that belonged to Joseph and Hyrum, including what Hyrum was wearing at Carthage. The clothing and other items until recently were in the possession of Elder Eldred G. Smith, former Patriarch to the Church and a direct descendant of Hyrum. Elder Smith often displayed them to groups he spoke to.

One area of the museum tells the story of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. Artwork depicting the event, pistols, and Hyrum’s clothing with a visible bullet hole are among the artifacts on display. Photo by Welden C. Andersen.

A vivid and haunting painting by Casey Childs depicting the moment of martyrdom has been enlarged upon by the artist expressly for the new exhibit. The earlier painting showed Joseph, Hyrum, and their companions in the jail trying to fend off the attacks of the armed assailants on the other side of the door. A new painting was created depicting the assailants on the other side of the door. The two paintings are placed side-by-side in a diptych arrangement, with the frame simulating the wall separating the victims from the assailants.

One area of the museum tells the story of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. Artwork depicting the event, pistols, and Hyrum’s clothing with a visible bullet hole are among the artifacts on display. Photo by Welden C. Andersen.

“We want to emphasize that the martyrdom had a major effect on the psyche of the Church, but it wasn’t the end of the Church,” Brother Neilson explained. Thus, stepping away from the artifacts, the visitor immediately sees a wall with a quotation from President Brigham Young: “Thank God the keys of the Kingdom are here.”

Thus is portrayed the continued leadership under the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the succession in the presidency of the Church.

The exhibit ends with a hint of what may come in a future exhibit either at the museum or elsewhere: the Latter-day Saints being driven from Nauvoo, the trek west, the settlement of the Great Basin, and events to follow, Brother Neilson pointed out.

“So it truly is an exhibit of the Joseph Smith period only. But one of the things I love is that there has been a very careful placement of a stained-glass picture of the Savior, so that when people come out of the exhibit, they will appreciate that Jesus Christ is the center of it all.”

The museum, located at 45 West Temple in Salt Lake City, is free and open to the public from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday through Friday and on Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Elder Steven E. Snow speaks before the ribbon-cutting for the reopening of the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, September 29, 2015. Photo by Stacie Scott.

New paintings have been added to the museum, such as this depiction of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple. Photo by Welden C. Andersen.

A new permanent exhibit, The Heavens Are Opened, focuses on how the hand of God guided the establishment of the Church through Joseph Smith and the Mormon pioneers. Photo by Welden C. Andersen.

One exhibit displays the preparation of Joseph Smith, Moroni's visit, and the acquiring of the plates from which the Book of Mormon was to be translated. Photo by Welden C. Andersen.

The story of the Kirtland Temple is told in a quiet space in the Church History Museum. Photo by Welden C. Andersen.

Artifacts and the new displays cover many key events and inspirational stories, such as the gathering of the Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois. This period includes the organization of the Relief Society. Photo by Welden C. Andersen.

The reopening of the Church History Museum features a new exhibit, The Heavens Are Opened, which displays the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, September 29, 2015. Photo by Stacie Scott.

The reopening of the Church History Museum features a new exhibit, The Heavens Are Opened, which displays the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, September 29, 2015. Photo by Stacie Scott.

Judy and Bryon Andreasen explore interactive elements of the new exhibit, The Heavens Are Opened, which displays the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at the reopening of the Church History Museum on Tuesday, September 29, 2015. Photo by Stacie Scott.