LDS Artifacts and Art Portray Church History: The New Church Museum

A visit to the new Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City is an unforgettable experience with history and heritage.

A copy of the first Book of Mormon printed in 1830; John Taylor’s pocketwatch and Hebrew Bible; a pot made by Heber C. Kimball; a cane given to Lorenzo Snow by the Sunday School children of Samoa four days before his death; a mallet that belonged to Wilford Woodruff, used for tapping into place the capstone for the Salt Lake Temple; a wood-carved odometer built in the 1880s to measure wagon miles during the Saints’ journey to the northern Arizona settlements; trunks used by Danish converts emigrating to the United States during the 1850s; a batik made in Indonesia depicting the First Vision …

These and innumerable other items housed inside the granite-faced structure gracing the north end of West Temple reflect the history of the Church in a distinct and memorable manner.

“To make the past live and thus make the the Church more meaningful and instructive is a major purpose of the museum,” reflects Elder G. Homer Durham of the Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy, Church Historian and Recorder, and managing director of the Historical Department of the Church. “It strives to bring together the beautiful and endurable,” he emphasizes, “and to celebrate the creative spirit of our people—the durable that can give a glimpse of eternity and build on the best of the past.”

Behold, there shall be a record kept among you (D&C 21:1).

The beautiful and endurable are apparent even at the main entrance of the museum in the striking thirty-by-thirty-foot stone-relief facade resting just above the doorway. This piece of art, sculpted by LDS artist Franz Johansen, symbolically ties together the two areas of art and history.

Composed of nine ten-foot squares unified by a circle moving through the outer areas, the granite-faced sculpture portrays some of the main themes of Church history. In the central portion, which depicts the restoration of the gospel and the early days of the Church, a beam of light beginning near the top radiates down upon Joseph Smith and the Angel Moroni as he delivers the gold plates. The rays continue into the heart of the facade showing the first printing of the Book of Mormon in 1830 and symbolizing the need for publishing the word of the Lord. The lower scene portrays the organization of the Church, including scriptural phrases testifying that “the rise of the Church of Christ in these last days … by the will and commandments of God” (D&C 20:1) is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the Lord’s work in the latter days: “Behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder” (Isa. 29:14). Illustrated on the left side are the concepts of temples and covenants, the exodus and journey across the plains, and the settlement in the West. The right panel reflects the present-day era with its focus on temples, missionary work, and the family.

A number of familiar Church symbols appear in the relief, among them the Nauvoo Temple sun stone and star stone; the Kirtland Temple; the spires of the Salt Lake Temple; the Relief Society, Primary, and MIA emblems; a covered wagon; the Mormon Trail buffalo skull; the Salt Lake Tabernacle organ; a sheaf of wheat; a scroll showing the coming together of the Old World and the New World scriptures; and a hieroglyphic facsimile from the Pearl of Great Price.

The simplicity and purity of the composition reflect the purity of the gospel, according to Brother Johansen, who is chairman of the art department at Brigham Young University. Because of its complex, multidimensional characteristics, the sculpture can be interpreted on many levels, fulfilling an instructional as well as an artistic function.

Artifacts from older museums of Church history and art

Artifacts from older museums of Church history and art represent displays planned for the future. Musical instruments, pottery, and crossing the plains are some of the subjects to be featured.

Inside the museum, artifacts, art, and various memorabilia reflect themes portrayed in the sculpted entrance. Many echo major events of the Restoration that have become indelibly etched in the souls of the Saints worldwide. Each item has a story to tell. Accompanying all displays and exhibits is printed information setting the pieces in their historical-cultural context.

“The museum collection contains many fine, interesting, and beautiful items—magnificent artifacts and pieces of art that are a part of the restoration of the gospel, which has changed so many lives. The museum shows what many people have produced because of this change, symbolizing what happened when the restored gospel of Jesus Christ touched their minds and hearts,” says Florence S. Jacobsen, director of the Arts and Sites Division of the Historical Department of the Church. This department has developed the museum and continues to care for the collections as well as manage the 63,500 square-foot structure that houses them.

Planning for a new museum began ten years ago, when Sister Jacobsen was called as Church Curator to look after the collections. When the Bureau of Information and Museum on Temple Square closed a few years later, she and others began encouraging the idea of a new facility. The new museum and its exhibits are the result of these combined efforts and the support of the First Presidency.

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace. (Isa. 52:7.)

Just inside the lightly tinted glass doors at the main entrance is a handsome white oak information desk where the visitor can pick up leaflets, maps of where exhibits are located, and a schedule of when the orientation film is shown in the theater downstairs. Set against the white oak paneling on the wall behind the desk is a decorative stained glass window removed from the sealing room of the Logan Temple during the temple’s remodeling. This elegant artifact evokes a serene, thoughtful mood that stimulates the kind of personal discovery characteristic of the museum. The cut glass, in shades of green, turquoise, gold, and off-white, is formed with thin strips of lead in a classical pattern of columns and arches. A large cream-beige column stands at either side of the desk. Functional structures for supporting the museum’s floors, these columns are repeated approximately every thirty-six feet, suggesting a somewhat classical atmosphere.

To the south of the information area is the museum store, its large windows revealing glass shelves displaying numerous historical items and art pieces. Due north of the information desk is the attractive, temporary exhibit on the Deseret Museum of 1869 to 1919. This exhibit, along with the display on the familiar LDS Church Museum that occupied part of the Bureau of Information on Temple Square until a few years ago, offers visitors a look at a number of historical artifacts that were attractions in older LDS museums. A large gate from Temple Square, a buffalo skull, a spinning wheel, a stained glass window portraying Nephi’s dream, photographs of old museum buildings—these and other items help capture the image of LDS culture, past and present.

A display case from the Deseret Museum

This exhibit recreates a display case from the Deseret Museum (1869–1919), a “curiosity cabinet” used extensively in older Church museums.

Interest in displaying artifacts and art associated with the founding and history of the Church is of long standing. As early as the mid-1830s the Prophet Joseph Smith began exhibiting the recently acquired Egyptian mummies and scrolls in Kirtland, Ohio. Over the years several museums have housed various and numerous Church memorabilia, and visitors have felt those stirrings of curiosity characteristic of such places of learning. Among the items displayed were Utah home manufactures; minerals, fossils, and prehistory, along with a menagerie of Utah wild animals for a short time; items of LDS Church history; and Brigham Young’s personal collection of Oriental and Polynesian artifacts.

Study and learn, and become acquainted with … languages, tongues, and people. (D&C 90:15.)

Three levels and a mezzanine make up the new museum, but, as with most museums, only part of the building is open to patrons at present, and more space will be needed, says Elder Durham, to house existing and future Church collections. On the main floor, north of the older museums exhibits, the visitor views items being readied for galleries scheduled to open in the latter part of 1985. The exhibits will highlight additional artifacts and art of historical events in Church history: the New York period, the Missouri/Ohio/Nauvoo years, the migration from Europe and Nauvoo to Utah, settlement of the West, and memorabilia from Church programs such as welfare, public service, auxiliaries, temples, and missionary work.

On this floor, the visitor walks on handsome carpeting of beige tones mixed with rose and muted green. Basic to the decor of the building, these three colors appear throughout the museum in much of the carpeting and in tiles, upholstery, and the theater curtain. Relatively neutral colors allow emphasis to be placed on the collections instead of on furnishings and other surroundings. Ceilings and walls are painted the cream-beige or pale gray of the support columns, except for occasional accent colors on selected walls. Textured wallpaper, wall carpet, and oak paneling enhance exhibits and displays.

Downstairs near the theater, an exhibit features works of contemporary LDS artists, the first of a series of continuing exhibits on art and photography. The pieces capture God’s handiwork in nature, the land and sky, and treat themes such as temples, ordinances, and daily acts of service.

Art has always been at its best when it has served a cause greater than the artist. (Arnold Friberg.)

Upstairs on the second level, the visitor is drawn to an inspirational stained glass window of the Savior calling his Apostles.

Nearby are exhibits of the Presidents of the Church that portray their various administrative eras, complete with portraits in oil, documents, photographs, and personal artifacts that belonged to each President. Among the displays are President Harold B. Lee’s gardening gloves, trowel, and digging fork. “President Lee loved to garden,” Sister Jacobsen relates. “His daughter Helen says that when he was burdened with cares and needed to rest his mind he would work in his garden.”

Also among the Presidents’ numerous personal artifacts are the Prophet Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo Legion sword, a pair of Brigham Young’s boots, the $100 certificate received by President Joseph F. Smith symbolizing the final payment of the debt the Church had been in until early nineteen hundred, and President George Albert Smith’s Boy Scout uniform.

An exhibit on other Church leaders hosts a collection of oil portraits documenting the early days of the Church to the present. A changing gallery now spotlights works by the major pioneer LDS artist C. C. A. Christensen. Featured is his “Mormon Panorama” of twenty-two large paintings of Church history scenes, dozens of smaller easel paintings, and a series of Book of Mormon paintings commissioned in the 1890s by the Sunday School.

The temporary exhibits will vary from a few weeks to several months in duration. Four galleries will be changed on regular schedules to allow more of the general collection to be displayed, and to provide variety and interest for returning visitors. These exhibits will include portions of the collection not on permanent exhibit or items borrowed from other museums and private collectors.

One gallery, doubling as a conference and meeting room, preserves woodwork and a fireplace originally part of the museum on Temple Square and features a long boardroom table used in ZCMI during Brigham Young’s time. With its displays of American Indian arts and frontier artifacts—complete with paintings, wall hangings, sculptures, and artifacts in corner glass cases—this gallery has a distinct Western American flavor.

Also on the second level, in front of the large window on the east, is a gold-leafed statue of the Angel Moroni, once part of the Washington, D.C., chapel built during the 1930s. Looking through the trees and onto Temple Square, one catches an impressive perspective of Cyrus Dallin’s original Angel Moroni set atop a spire of the Salt Lake Temple.

Put on thy beautiful garments, O daughter of Zion. (Moro. 10:31.)

Enhancing one’s visit on the second level is a fine arts and sculpture display titled “Masterworks.” A window arch taken from the Logan Temple forms a dramatic main entrance. In the far end of the gallery is another arch which frames a large drawing of the Prophet Joseph Smith, evoking a three-dimensional effect. In this gallery, some of the finest nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Latter-day Saint artists are represented—J. T. Harwood, John Hafen, Mahonri Young, and Cyrus Dallin, to name a few.

A window arch taken from the Logan Temple

A window arch taken from the Logan Temple when it was remodeled forms a dramatic entrance to the Masterworks gallery.

At the direct encouragement of early Church leaders, several of these artists traveled to New York and Paris to obtain their training. With their technical skills developed, the painters were then prepared to compose the murals in ordinance rooms of the Salt Lake, Manti, Logan, and St. George temples. Truman O. Angell, one of the architects for the Salt Lake Temple, was sent on a mission to Europe as a young man to study architecture. This kind of experience and work, together with the easel paintings of Utah landscapes and historical subjects, and portraits, helped launch an important fine-arts tradition among Latter-day Saints.

In the “Masterworks” gallery, the eye is drawn to two additional stained glass windows set in the ceiling as a decorative skylight. Also from the Logan Temple series, they are exactly like the cut glass window in the main-floor lobby.

The work of early Utah artists

The work of early Utah artists (1840–1930) is seen in the Masterworks gallery. The large painting of Joseph Smith was taken from the Bountiful Tabernacle; other paintings on this wall are from the pioneer period.

Visitors not only enjoy browsing in the museum’s galleries but also benefit from a variety of special services and programs. Recordings of Church leaders’ voices, silent movies, video clips, and sounds from pioneer band instruments are among added attractions that enhance exhibits and displays. Later on, selected items will be available in working exhibits where visitors can experience the past by using tools and other objects. On the basement level, the 178-seat theater with a multimedia projection booth is the center for films, lectures, and similar events.


Auditorium located in the basement of the museum

% This 178-seat auditorium, located in the basement of the museum, is used for films, lectures, and similar events.

On the plaza just outside and immediately south of the building, the Osmyn Deuel log cabin, which previously stood on Temple Square near the old LDS Church Museum, will be landscaped and furnished to the period. Demonstrations of historical crafts, music, and dance, among other things, will be offered seasonally, after the museum has developed its full program.

Located on the main level is the museum store, where one finds fine art prints (framed and unframed) selected from the Church art collection; reproductions of some artifacts; selected books, postcards, and slides; exhibit posters; and other items related to exhibits. “The store is an extension of the museum in the sense that it can give visitors something they can take home with them to learn more about the collections, and to help them remember what they have seen,” says Glen M. Leonard, museum director.

In the small library on the second level is a reference collection of books, files on the exhibits, and a collection of slides of art and artifacts. Primarily for use by the staff, these are also made available for serious researchers. The museum is mainly an institution for public exhibits, however, and the emphasis is therefore on the collections rather than on research by patrons. Available in the reference area are various published materials on LDS art and artists and the kinds of art and artifacts that are part of Church history.

The museum’s library

The museum’s library contains reference books, files on exhibits, and slides of art and artifacts. Although the library is primarily for use by the staff, it is also available to serious researchers.

The scope of the museum is international; its exhibits and displays reflect a wide variety of historical and cultural experiences. “The visitor will come and look for the familiar, but also will discover new artifacts, new ideas, new interpretations,” Brother Leonard notes. The museum is continually looking for artifacts and art that tell the history of the Church from 1820 to the present, which includes history that has been and is now being made in the many countries of the world where the gospel has been preached and has taken root. The artifact collection contains weaving created by members from Guatemala, tapas made by Polynesian Saints, tapestry created by an Armenian family portraying the presidents of the Church and the trek West. The collections attempt to represent both the breadth and the depth of the Church’s involvement in spreading the gospel.

In that day shall the branch of the Lord be beautiful and glorious. (2 Ne. 14:2; Isa. 4:2.)

Many pieces in the art collection tend to reflect a theme related to the gospel or the history of the Church. This kind of art is of primary interest because it helps the museum preserve artistic feelings and expressions of LDS culture and beliefs, curators explain. As the gospel touches peoples’ lives in various countries, they sometimes respond by creating art in native forms that reflects that influence. In expressing their testimonies through their art, they help create a contemporary tradition of special value to Church members.

A museum traditionally collects the finest representative pieces of a culture; and even though standards differ from one area to another, that which is deemed the finest in a given culture is what the museum is looking for. It might be a piece of weaving or woodcarving or pottery; the work of the finest artists who are LDS is that which the museum desires to exhibit. But an artist’s reputation sometimes is based on other factors, according to museum curators. C. C. A. Christensen is important as a preserver of Latter-day Saint history, for instance. With his panoramas, he was trying to tell a story, and “he was a good storyteller,” Brother Leonard comments. “He was also a great missionary.”

Because of the role it performs in educating members and the public, the museum, like all institutions of its kind, has unique needs. Items are displayed so visitors can view them closely, in a direct way. The experience becomes a very personal one. A great deal of care has gone into creating this kind of learning environment, and into deciding what should be done to protect items so that future generations as well as today’s visitors will be able to enjoy the fine historical and cultural heritage on display.

Plow used to turn the first furrow in the Salt Lake Valley

In July 1847, William Carter used this plow to turn the first furrow in the Salt Lake Valley. Several years later, after immigrating to St. George, he used it to turn the first furrow there.

Conservation and preservation are paramount. A museum piece is conserved by doing all that is necessary to prevent it from further deterioration. Occasionally, an artifact or piece of art needs restoration because of damage due to breakage or serious deterioration. This the museum accomplishes with conservators in the building or at Brigham Young University. “We are not interested in making things look new, but rather in preserving them the way they are and the way they were,” Director Leonard points out. “Many cultural artifacts have a patina of age and wear, and that’s what makes them authentic.”

First of all, a conservator always determines what an item is made of; second, what can be used safely with it; and, third, how to use it. A pair of boots on exhibit that belonged to Brigham Young had been displayed in the light and part of one of the boots had faded. A museum conservator wanted to stain that part of the boot to match the old stain and knew that in order to do so she needed to know the kind of material the boot was made of as well as the kind of stain to use on it. With the help of a tannery in Salt Lake, she was able to identify the leather as sheepskin and to find a stain to restore the boot to its original shade. The new and the old stains match so well that one can’t see where the faded portion was.

Involved in an ongoing process of discovering and learning, museum administrators and staff contribute in significant ways to what the museum hopes to share through exhibits and associated activities. Museums from Hawaii to New York, and some in Europe, have borrowed artifacts and exhibits from the Church collection for temporary exhibits. These “traveling exhibits” expand the museum’s ability to serve a wide spectrum of needs.

The museum staff is trained through study and experience to research and verify. On the staff are historians who know both general and Church history, both the history of world art and the history of LDS art. Not long after Sister Jacobsen was appointed Church Curator, she had the opportunity to acquire what was said to be an original 1850s handcart, Brother Leonard relates. Concerned about its authenticity, she called upon Brother T. Edgar Lyon, research historian for Nauvoo Restoration, Inc., who had a good deal of experience with artifacts. He took wood samples from the handcart and sent them to a Forest Service lab where specialists were able to identify these as hardwoods, the kind not generally found in the western United States. This meant that the handcart definitely was not one made from Utah pine, so it was not a modern “Days of 47” handcart. Instead, the woods were typical of Iowa, where the immigrating Saints’ handcarts were created. And, notes Brother Leonard, they were the woods specified in a letter Charles R. Dana wrote to Franklin D. Richards in Europe, in 1856, giving instructions to the Saints preparing to emigrate, telling them how to build handcarts and what kinds of woods to use.

Historical research and the use of the laboratory have in many cases helped the museum understand what it has acquired. “We must be truthful,” Sister Jacobsen stresses. “We can’t afford to assume that hearsay information is correct. Above all,” she adds, “we hope that somehow the Spirit will speak to those who visit the museum—that testimonies will be strengthened, that members will come to know of a surety that the gospel has been restored, and that those who are not members will have a deeper interest awakened for further investigation.”

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those that bring glad tidings of good things. (D&C 128:19.)

In the preservation of the museum’s collections, special care is taken with humidity, temperature, and quality of the air. Galleries and storage areas are controlled so that the building approaches an ideal environment as closely as possible—one in which there is very little environmental fluctuation, since changing humidity, for example, can cause major damage. Windows provide pleasant views from the foyer and from offices, but there are no windows in the galleries or storage areas. Exposure to daylight is one of the most damaging things that can happen to textiles and many other natural materials, so artificial lighting is constructed to keep artifacts from ultraviolet rays. Extra-sensitive objects are displayed for a short time only and then returned to a dark room.

Proper storage of art and artifacts
Proper storage of art and artifacts

Proper storage of art and artifacts is essential to their preservation. Shown here are the painting and ceramic storage areas in which humidity, temperature, and air quality are carefully controlled.

The museum is furnished with appropriate fire-protection and security systems. If an object is of exceptional value and irreplaceable, it is placed under additional protection. Many artifacts are encased to protect them from damage. Most items on exhibit are placed inside Plexiglas cases or on platforms with barriers in front. And all objects are handled with “tender loving care” by the museum staff, Brother Leonard notes.

The museum itself has been designed to serve the characteristic needs of a museum. Its interior has been created to allow for flexibility in designing exhibit environments with a variety of shapes, sizes, and partition and lighting configurations. So that spotlights can be put where they are needed, for example, a track lighting system has been installed in the ceilings, which allows the light to be moved along a grid. Ceilings in exhibit galleries are approximately fifteen feet high.

This handsome, functional building contains offices and work areas for administrators, researchers, and various museum personnel; a vault; a design studio; a conservation lab; a cataloging room; a shipping and receiving area; and an exhibits fabrication shop.

Faced with granite to match the buildings on Temple Square, and located immediately west of Temple Square at 45 North West Temple, the new building was designed by Church architect Emil Fetzer in a style reminiscent of the architecture of the north and south visitors’ centers. The genealogical library, under construction to the south of the museum, just across the plaza, has been designed as a sister building.

The museum is open to the public seven days a week year round, from 9 A.M. to 9 P.M. weekdays, and from 10 A.M. to 7 P.M. on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. It is closed only on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Easter. Guide service for scheduled groups will be available weekdays. The store is open Monday through Saturday from 10 A.M. to 7 P.M.

On hand to assist the full-time staff are two hundred volunteers who serve as gallery guides; help patrons at the information desk, in the cloak room, and in the store; and perform a number of other tasks. Those who act as docents—special museum teachers—receive additional training in presentations that provide special learning experiences for groups. Most volunteers are found through referrals by staff members and Church leaders.

If there is to be an art tradition stressed by the museum, it will be that of excellence, says Sister Florence Jacobsen. “The thirteenth article of faith is the basis for any tradition the museum must pursue,” affirms Elder G. Homer Durham. “Church history is being made in many lands. Just as families everywhere treasure items to pass on, the museum preserves the important and the durable. We feel the museum is a testimonial to the nations—to all who come to visit, discover, and learn—that the values of the restored gospel are real, and that they have been real throughout history. All should be grateful to the First Presidency for having the vision to have this structure built, a place where pioneering work of the Church all over the world can be displayed.”

If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things. (A of F 1:13.)

In his keynote address during the second World Conference on Records, held in Salt Lake City, 12 August 1980, President Spencer W. Kimball, along with his announcement of the soon-to-be constructed museum and the new genealogical library, told the thousands assembled: “It is reassuring to find so many of you whose thoughts and hearts are turned to your ancestors and to your roots. Whether we recognize it or not, we are connected with our past and we can fashion a better future if we draw upon the inspiration of the past and the lessons of history, both as a people and individually. … When there is proper regard for the past and its people, we enrich the present as well as the future.” (“Remarks by President Spencer W. Kimball,” Keynote Address; in vol. 1 of the 13-volume proceedings of the 1980 World Conference on Records, pp. 1, 2.)

The strong sense of history that has been at the heart of the Church since its birth more than 150 years ago is given singular significance by these words, especially for those who visit the new Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City or take advantage of traveling exhibits that will find their way into other cities from time to time. In this way, and as they contribute their services and Church-related heirlooms, keepsakes, and art pieces to the museum, members will have the opportunity not only to view firsthand the many interesting items portraying the history of the Church from its early days to the present but also to be a part of its history in the making.

[photos] Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten, Jed A. Clark, Michael M. McConkie, and Marty Mayo

[photo] An evening view of the granite-faced Church Museum, located west of Temple Square on West Temple.

[photo] A thirty-by-thirty foot bas-relief depicting major events in Church history rests atop the entrance of the new museum. (Special lighting and photography by Royce Bair.)

[photo] The museum’s information desk. The stained glass window in the background was removed from a sealing room when the Logan Temple was remodeled.

[photo] Paintings and prints by contemporary Latter-day Saint artists featured in this basement gallery represent a variety of themes; quotations from the artists help viewers better appreciate the art.

[photo] Thomas Kane, a loyal friend of the Latter-day Saint people, presented this telescope to Orson Hyde at Winter Quarters. It was probably used for scouting on the trek west.

[photo] Conservators work to restore artifacts to their original state in the museum’s conservation lab. The woman on the left cleans a painting while the one on the right works at a hot table, which is used to moisten and flatten textiles.

[photo] American Indian art and frontier artifacts give this gallery, which doubles as a conference room, a distinct Western American flavor. The fireplace and woodwork were originally in the museum on Temple Square; the boardroom table was used at ZCMI during Brigham Young’s time.

Kerril Sue Rollins is the Primary in-service leader in the Salt Lake Emigration Stake.