Interview: The Church History Museum

What is this -- a museum for ANTS??

What is this — a museum for ANTS??

The Church recently announced that it will be closing the Church History Museum next week for a year. During that time, the museum will undergo extensive renovations: its current display, A Covenant Restored, will be replaced with a new exhibition, The Heavens Are Opened. There has been a lot of speculation about the new exhibition and how it will address questions of Church history. The staff and curators of the Church History Museum, including Kurt Graham, Senior Exhibits Curator, were generous enough to respond to a few questions.

What was the impetus for the new exhibition? How did it come about?

The Church History Department asked the museum to reconsider how the exhibits were meeting the needs of its visitors. The new exhibit is a direct result of the Department’s effort to provide a more transparent, open approach to the history of the Church.

The new exhibition, “The Heavens Are Opened,” seems to place more emphasis on storytelling and immersion of the visitor, rather than on historical artifacts themselves. Would that be an accurate statement?

There is definitely more emphasis on engaging the visitor in the narrative of Church history, especially on connecting visitors with individual stories. However, it would be wrong to interpret this added emphasis on storytelling as an abandonment of an artifact-based museum experience. On the contrary, the new exhibit is designed to highlight star objects and set them in a context in which they can be better understood and appreciated. This is definitely an artifact-rich exhibit.

The new exhibition, as it’s been described, also seems to be far more missionary-oriented and devotional than perhaps we’ve seen before. Is that part of an effort to expand the museum’s attractiveness to non-LDS visitors?

The youth of the Church and their families are a target audience for the new exhibit. We have also written text and included art and artifacts with non-members in mind. For these audiences and all visitors, we decided to show the direct connection between the historical events of the restoration of the Church and revelation from God. Our key message that all Latter-day Saint history, doctrine, and culture are shaped by revelation has obviously led us to include statements and examples of devotion. We have not consciously sought to create missionary-oriented messages as might be found in our Visitors Centers. But we believe this dynamic presentation of the experiences of early Latter-day Saints as they felt God’s hand in their lives will better fulfill the museum’s mission to provide connections to Church history.

Tell us about the media pieces and interactive elements.

The media pieces are designed to enhance the visitor experience by filling in the gaps in the narrative. They are based on primary source material and the lives and experiences of real people. There will be kiosks, interactive maps, and theater experiences that will dovetail with the art and artifacts to present a cohesive story that will be much more comprehensive because of the media elements. The Presidents of the Church gallery on the second floor will remain in place until a subsequent phase of the museum’s renovation.

Some of the documents and piece in the new exhibition have never been in a permanent, public installation before. Can you share with us a couple of examples of what we can look forward to seeing?

There are several new items that will be displayed in the exhibit. These include a Nauvoo Legion musket, a clock Wilford Woodruff had made for his wife while he was on a mission, artifacts related to the Smith family, newly commissioned works of art, and several original documents from the Church archives that have not been previously exhibited.

How does the new exhibition impact the Museum’s ability to store and preserve other artifacts and documents that are important to our history?

The museum has both onsite and offsite storage capacity. The collection will be well cared for before, during, and after the reinstallation.

You’ll also include some reproductions of locations, which is a little new for the museum. What’s the thought process and the goal behind those?

There are several locations in the new exhibit that are designed to set a context for the portion of the story to be told there. These are not exact replicas; the exhibit is not meant to take the place of any of the Church’s important historic sites. Rather, settings like the Whitmer cabin or Liberty Jail are designed to help visually convey the message that the Restoration was a real event that happened in real places in the lives of real people.

How does the new exhibition fit into the Museum’s overall mission?

The museum exists to provide opportunities for visitors to connect to the history, culture, and doctrines of the Church. We believe this new exhibit will provide that connection for many more people than we are currently reaching.


  1. Good.stuff. The review of “Meet the Mormons” and now this…all in two days. Impressed, Brother Evans.

  2. It’s all for you.

  3. Fantastic interview, and exciting stuff.
    Also, Zoolander reference FTW.

  4. It seems to me that the red silk handkerchief Joseph Smith gave to Wilford Woodruff on the “day of healing” in Nauvoo was on display at one point; but I haven’t seen it in the last couple of years. Will it be brought back?

  5. One thing that will be on permanent display I believe is the Kingsbury manuscript of D&C 132. An important artifact if there ever was one.

  6. Are there any plans to take the Hall of Church Presidents in a more animatronic direction?

  7. John Mansfield says:

    The Genealogy Library that was built at the same time as the Museum of Church History and Art was constructed with a structure that could bear three additional floors in the future. I had the idea that the Museum of Church History and Art had also been built for that sort of expansion, so the announcement of closing to renovate got my hopes up. Looking back at the articles from thirty years ago, though, it looks like only the Genealogical Library was built for vertical expansion.

  8. gst: I understand the Disney talks broke down.

  9. Something interesting: look at portraits on the wall of the room on the left side, just below the Smith cabin one. There’s a (standard) portrait of Emma, and something that looks very similar to that old debunked daguerreotype of “Joseph.” Is this going to be an actual thing? It’ll be interesting to see what that painting actually looks like in a real museum instead of the ant museum.

  10. You’re missing, I think the most exciting things about the renovation.
    I think “far more missionary-oriented and devotional” is a vast mischaracterization.
    The apparent dedication to accurate history over devotion seems very impressive to me:

    “I think the church has entered an era of increased transparency when it comes to how it deals with its past,” Graham said. “We have multiple accounts of the First Vision that both Joseph and others around him recorded at different times. We will be sharing all of those versions.”
    “We’ll be dealing, for example, with the idea of polygamy in Nauvoo”
    From article:

    Also, “One section of the exhibit will be about the translation methods of the Book of Mormon, with a scribe table experience about the translation process.”

    I really hope they do this and include an accurate representation of the seer stone in the hat, if they don’t include this, it would be better to not do it at all than face the criticism this would bring. Not sure how it was decided along the lines that the image of ‘magic spectacles ‘ was less credulous than that of the seer stone in the hat.

  11. Also, for LDS history buffs (or anybody really), I strongly, strongly recommend the *Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum* at 300 N Main Street in Salt Lake City to the west of the capital building.

    Mindblowing, includes the rod of nature, Utah territory and colonial currency, 1st ed BoMs, murals from the Nauvoo temple, ER Snow Smith’s pens, BY’s wagon he entered the valley in, and tons more amazing things.

    Literally 100-200X more artifacts on display that the LDS Church History museum and I mean literally, literally.

  12. Jpv, I’ll second that suggestion. As for my horrible mischaracterization… I guess we’ll see but there’s no question that the emphasis is shifting towards structured storytelling.

  13. This makes my heart happy. I was super impressed with the displays at the Winter Quarters Visitors Center a year ago. Apparently the Missionary Department was overwhelmed with other projects, and so they allowed the Church History Department greater latitude in planning the displays there. They were so detailed and person and engaging due to the primary source materials on display. I look forward to more!

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