Family History Creates a “Museum of Me,” Says FamilySearch CEO

Contributed By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 13 February 2015

Dennis Brimhall, president and CEO of FamilySearch, gives his keynote speech at the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, February 12, 2015.  Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Article Highlights

  • This year’s RootsTech has 21,927 registered attendees, nearly doubling last year’s attendance.
  • The theme is “Celebrating Families across Generations.”

“We’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it is about family history that causes people to like it. And we’ve come to the realization that, for most people, it’s simply the joy of discovery. It’s the thrill of hunting and finding and learning something we didn’t know before.” —Dennis C. Brimhall, FamilySearch CEO

Finding and connecting with one’s ancestors amounts to creating a “Museum of Me,” said Dennis C. Brimhall, CEO of FamilySearch International, as he welcomed attendees February 12 in the opening keynote session of the three-day RootsTech 2015 conference at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, deemed by organizers to be the largest family history conference in the world.

Brother Brimhall announced that 21,927 attendees had registered for the conference, nearly doubling last year’s attendance of some 13,000. This is the fifth year that FamilySearch, the Church Internet genealogy service, has put on the annual conference, and it has grown substantially each year.

Registered attendees hail from 35 countries and all but one of the 50 states in the United States.

“Celebrating Families across Generations” is the theme of this year’s conference.

The Federation of Genealogical Societies, a group comprising hundreds of societies across the United States and other nations, has linked its own conference with RootsTech this year, accounting for some of the boost in attendance.

In his keynote address, Brother Brimhall introduced the Family Discovery Center, for which a grand opening was held February 11 at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City. It is a prototype high-tech activity center where visitors, particularly young people, can become acquainted with how to search their family history.

“We’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it is about family history that causes people to like it,” Brother Brimhall told the audience. “And we’ve come to the realization that, for most people, it’s simply the joy of discovery. It’s the thrill of hunting and finding and learning something we didn’t know before.”

Dennis Brimhall, president and CEO of FamilySearch, takes a selfie during his keynote speech at the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, February 12, 2015. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Tan Le, entrepreneur and Vietnamese refugee, gives her keynote speech at the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, February 12, 2015. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Tricia Butts rolls up a genealogy wall chart at the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, February 12, 2015. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Jodie Banks explores genealogy at the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, February 12, 2015. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Myko Clelland, right, shows Kathy Hadley, left, and Sharon Hall findmypast.com at the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, February 12, 2015. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Laurel Butts helps Karen Chamberlain make a genealogy wall chart at the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, February 12, 2015. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

People listen as Dennis Brimhall, president and CEO of FamilySearch, gives his keynote speech at the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, February 12, 2015. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Dennis Brimhall, president and CEO of FamilySearch, gives his keynote speech at the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, February 12, 2015. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Describing family history as “the joy of connecting oneself to ancestors,” Brother Brimhall said it is “fun, exciting, and, today, completely sharable.”

“What we’re really doing is creating a “Museum of Me,” he said. “All of our ancestors are exhibits in the Museum of Me.”

Based on the concept of what such a museum would look like, the Family Discovery Center was created. With the aid of projections on huge screens he demonstrated some of the features of the center.

He demonstrated that all visitors receive a computer tablet on which they can take a selfie and log in using their FamilySearch account name and password.

Each visitor then docks the tablet at a station where a large touchscreen opens up, giving information about meaning and frequency of his or her first and last names and events that were happening during the year of his or her birth.

Brother Brimhall showed that by docking at another station, the visitor sees a larger world map with icons representing ancestors at the various locations where they were born. Zooming in on locations and touching an icon, the visitor then can see information, photos, and stories pertaining to the ancestor represented by the icon.

This is drawn from material that has been submitted to the FamilySearch Family Tree website by the visitor’s relatives.

One of the photos Brother Brimhall pulled up while demonstrating the function was a group photo from the wedding of his grandmother, showing her with her eight sisters as bridesmaids. He said the photo had been so remarkable that it was featured in Life magazine.

“One of the wonderful things about the Museum of Me is that we can add to it,” he said. He pointed to his Aunt Joyce in the group photo and said that when he visited her recently she shared a family story. He then asked her to repeat the story as he recorded on his smartphone, and he uploaded it to the FamilySearch Family Tree website. He played back his aunt’s retelling of the story as it is now preserved on the website.

“I now have been able to add that to my Museum of Me as an exhibit,” Brother Brimhall said, drawing applause from the audience.

Regarding the map and ancestors feature at the Family Discovery Center, Brother Brimhall said, “I think this is really cool, but my grandkids don’t care about this; they just want something more engaging, more exciting. So I’m going to have to visit another part of this Museum of Me to see if I can do something that will be of interest to my grandkids.”

He took the computer tablet to the next station, where there was a photo of people in costumes from the period of time when his ancestors lived. “All I have to do is touch on them, and look what happens,” he said, as the faces in the photo were all transformed into his own face from the selfie he took with the computer tablet. This brought appreciative laughter and applause from the audience.

Ultimately, a visitor's experience at the center is preserved and emailed to the visitor, an email that can then be shared with others, Brother Brimhall said.

“We’re pleased to announce this is not just hocus-pocus RootsTech magic,” he said, as he told of the discovery center’s grand opening that had taken place the day before.

“This is kind of a digital laboratory. It’s a place where we can explore ideas for getting people to make that transition from being interested to actually doing research.”

He explained that similar centers will be built around the world, including a smaller one this year near Seattle, Washington, and one in London, England.

“The goal is to see if we can take to many places a discovery experience, where families can come in and learn, and extend this out to our 4,800 family history centers around the world.”

Earlier in his address, Brother Brimhall spoke of the many commercial vendors who have partnered with FamilySearch to increase the pool of ancestral information available to persons seeking out their family history.

“FamilySearch and its partners represent over 10 billion records accessible through a hugely diverse patron experience,” he said.

“We have a lot of partners doing really exciting things, and many of them are using the FamilySearch Family Tree database. So we’ve developed a gallery of apps that you can access on FamilySearch.org. So you want to check this out and see if any of these apps and many more that we have might help you in your journey of discovery.”

As an example of how the partnerships help, he shared a letter he had received from a FamilySearch patron. The patron’s great-great-aunt filled out a pedigree chart in 1962, but all the information she had was her grandparents’ names.

The patron searched Ancestry.com, one of the FamilySearch partners, and found a drawing of her great-great-aunt’s mother. She then looked for that person’s parents in FamilySearch.org. She found that someone, probably a distant cousin, had posted photos of her parents. “I had never seen these before,” the patron wrote. “I was so happy to see these pictures of these ancestors. But I still didn’t know much about them.”

She went to another FamilySearch partner, FindMyPast, for further information. She found it on a census in England. That led to her finding more information.

“Using these websites, I was able to break through the brick wall of Aunt Julia’s pedigree chart,” the patron wrote.

“I loved that I could find all of this information that Aunt Julia had never had access to before in just a few searches on a few websites,” the letter concluded. “This branch of my family tree is leafier than ever. Thank you for making it possible.”

Brother Brimhall remarked, “Each of our partners held a piece of a puzzle that would then ultimately give a more complete picture. Today, more than ever, we have a huge variety of tools from which to choose to get the most done in our family history research.

“We at FamilySearch simply want you to use whatever tool gives you the best experience,” he said. “We just want you to discover more of your family history.”