The new permanent exhibit at the Museum of Church History and Art tells the story of conversion and commitment among Latter-day Saints.
Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to sit in a covered wagon as it rumbled across the plains in 1847 headed for the Salt Lake Valley, or to sleep in a small bunk between decks on board ship in 1856 as it struggled across the Atlantic Ocean on its way to America? Well, now you can do both—and more—at the new permanent exhibit at the Museum of Church History and Art.
The new 8,000-square-foot exhibit is no ordinary display. From the shimmering silence of the alcove near the entrance, with its stained-glass window containing the story of the First Vision, to the gazebo near the exit with its diorama of a turn-of-the-century Pioneer Day celebration, this exhibit captures the imagination. It invites visitors to participate in the early Mormon experience, including the restoration of the gospel in New York; the gathering of the Saints in Ohio and Missouri and later in Illinois; the migration of the Saints to the Salt Lake Valley by ship, covered wagon, and handcart; the building up of Zion in the American West; and the proclamation of the gospel to the world.
The exhibit features rarely seen artifacts, such as the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon translation in Oliver Cowdery’s own handwriting, as well as old favorites, such as the pocket watch that stopped a bullet and saved John Taylor’s life at Carthage Jail. The exhibit also highlights impressive reconstruction of buildings created especially for the museum—such as a section of the wall of the Nauvoo Temple built from original temple stones.
Large topographically accurate maps provide an overview of the 1846–1847 trek from Nauvoo to Salt Lake City, the sea routes of the Saints from around the world to America, and the settlement of the West by Latter-day Saint pioneers. Exquisitely detailed models provide a look into the past at such places as the Joseph Smith farm in Palmyra, New York, during the fall of 1827, the nineteenth-century ship Enoch Train in 1856, and Salt Lake City in the spring of 1870.
But however imaginative the displays, the exhibit isn’t a travelogue. Don L. Enders, senior curator at the museum, says that “a significant message flows through this entire exhibit, and we hope it will change the lives of the people who visit it.” That message centers around the theme—“A Covenant Restored.”
“A Covenant Restored”
“This exhibit and its message are the principal reasons the museum was built,” says Steven L. Olsen, project manager. “Our goal has been to interpret the religious foundations of the Church in terms of the covenants Latter-day Saints make, not just to tell stories in chronological order. Covenants, both individual and group, define what it means to be a Latter-day Saint. Only events that interpret Church history in terms of Latter-day Saints as a covenant people were selected for display,” he says.
“By the time visitors leave,” says Brother Enders, “they should know the answer to these questions: ‘How was the gospel restored?’ ‘Why do people become Latter-day Saints?’ and ‘How do Latter-day Saints work together to build the kingdom of Zion—both past and present?’ We hope visitors discover that a combination of conversion, covenants, and community is the answer.”
Innovation and Interaction
“The idea for an exhibit such as this was conceived even before this museum was built,” says Glen M. Leonard, museum director. “The actual construction and fabrication of the exhibit have been going on for about three years, but the research, planning, and designing have been going on for more than a decade.”
Hundreds of people have been involved in the development of “A Covenant Restored”: administrators, curators, designers, conservators, educators, catalogers, photographers, and builders. Steve Olsen has coordinated these groups as they have met together to develop everything from the broad scope of the message to the most minute detail of display and fabrication.
The experience of these teams is not unlike the experience of the early Saints, who are the heart of this exhibit; they, too, were gathered together from a wide variety of backgrounds and learned to work together to build the Church.
This team effort has produced a more accurate and exciting exhibit than those produced by the traditional approach of merely displaying artifacts; it has resulted in some of the most innovative ideas for using artifacts in museums today. One of these innovations is to put artifacts in an environmental setting. Whenever possible, the museum teams chose a specific time and place that was representative of a larger time and place and then recreated that setting as accurately as possible to help visitors imagine the event.
For example, a little piece of time has been “frozen” at the display of the construction of the Nauvoo Temple. An unfinished sunstone rests in front of the Nauvoo Temple wall, along with actual tools used in the building of the temple, with chips from the sunstone scattered nearby on the ground. It is as if the stonemason has left his work temporarily and you have simply wandered over to the temple site to see his work.
Also among the innovations are interactive displays that encourage visitors to push buttons, to view videos, even to climb into a covered wagon and a ship’s bunk. By pressing a button, a visitor can illuminate tiny red lights on a twelve-foot-high computer-driven map of the Mountain West and identify the 725 Mormon settlements by groups as they were established between 1847 and 1930. Videotaped messages accompany the display. Models of the Joseph Smith farm in 1827 and of Salt Lake City in 1870 are also equipped with buttons that, when pressed, highlight specific parts of the model and give recorded explanations of the events that took place there.
Challenges and Solutions
The creative ideas found throughout the exhibit did not come without effort and inspiration. Members of the museum staff say that on many occasions, solutions to challenges came about surprisingly. For example, they wanted to use original paving-stone on the floor of the area representing Salt Lake City. Knowing that original paving-stone still exists under a few of Salt Lake City’s streets, they had tried for two years without success to obtain stone from street repair sites. The day after the staff decided to abandon the idea and to use simulated stone instead, Kirk Henrichsen, exhibit designer, noticed construction on South Temple Street near the south gate of Temple Square. He immediately took a closer look at the excavation and saw original paving-stone under the recently removed asphalt. Arrangements were made, and soon the salvage company that had purchased the paving-stones donated six dump-truck loads to the museum.
According to Brother Olsen, one of the most difficult challenges was “communicating something spiritual through temporal means.” The museum teams faced that challenge as they had others: “We have been prayerful as well as professional in our decisions about the selection of art work, documents, and artifacts,” he says.
For example, a baby’s blessing gown is displayed in a quiet area of the exhibit. Although this exquisite white gown doesn’t draw immediate attention like the brilliance of the stained-glass window does, it has a subtle power all its own that symbolizes the spirit of the entire museum. While traveling by ship and wagon westward to be with her fiancé, a young Englishwoman, Hannah Smith, hand-worked a single piece of fabric into delicate eyelet that became the gown’s long skirt. She labored over its stitches not only in anticipation of the birth of her own children, but also as part of her desire to leave a legacy for her posterity. Eventually eighty-six descendants of Hannah Smith London were blessed in this gown, benefiting from her sacrifice and faith in the restored gospel.
Hannah Smith London’s efforts mirror the actions of thousands of other Saints who have labored not only for themselves and their immediate families, but also in anticipation of the legacies they could leave for others. These thousands of acts of faith by early and modern-day members are the heart and spirit of “A Covenant Restored.”