A little over a year ago, the Church History Museum shut down for renovations. The renovations were sorely needed; some exhibits were run down, the museum itself was a bit dated. Today the museum re-opened and the new exhibit, The Heavens Are Opened, is the centerpiece. It was worth the wait. The revamped Church History Museum is a very fine collection of materials and artifacts from our past, presented in a manner that is both engaging and spiritually uplifting.
Overall, the Museum offers a lower level, which has a theater and also displays a collection of portraits of Jesus by J. Kirk Richards. The upper level has a renovated kids’ area, as well as the International Art Competition and the previously existing exhibit of Presidents of the Church. The main floor has been completely redone. It now houses the new exhibit on Church history (The Heavens Are Opened), as well as an expanded store. The new exhibit is the focal point of the entire museum.
It is a highly interactive exhibit, which makes historians and curators cringe but we’re not solely talking about touchscreens and Hall of President-style dioramas (though there are dioramas). Technological aspects to the museum are present but not overwhelming or overly distracting. Instead the emphasis is on immersing people in the history. Artifacts are on display but in a way that is instructive, not purely show-pony style. The Grandin press is on display, but adjacent to the press is an activity center for guests to try printing on their own press (presumably without fear of having that press destroyed). There are original windows from the Kirtland Temple but they are there as a mini-temple display, and in the interior the story is told of D&C 110 and the visitations of heavenly messengers.
The First Vision plays a prominent role, but it is presented in all its variations for people to read and compare. The new film is shown in an immersive wrap-around theater, but the film itself follows a hybrid narrative taken from the various versions, and takes place solely in the Sacred Grove. It is a far more straightforward retelling of the account. There are some special effects (hard to avoid when telling the story of Joseph seeing God and Jesus Christ), but the net impression of the film is simple. The museum is a significant step forward in how we are telling the Joseph Smith story: it is straightforward, transparent and accessible. As such it is a microcosm for the Church’s current overall approach to historical issues.
Elder Holland, Elder Cook and other General Authorities were on hand for the ribbon-cutting and to welcome visitors. I interviewed Elder Holland briefly about the exhibit and the Church’s aims with the renovation (apologies for the noisy audio):
The rest of the exhibit is not as grandiose as the First Vision film, and follows a more traditional historical narrative: the 1838 Mormon War, Liberty Jail, Kirtland, Nauvoo, the martyrdom and the Mormon diaspora are all represented, though far more even-handedly and transparently than I’ve seen in prior Church exhibits. This is the first Church exhibit I’ve seen that devotes time to James Strang, for example. And while the exhibits are engineered to appeal to broad audiences, devoted fans of history will find some amazing gems: the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes, Vienna Jaques’ Book of Mormon, the original Extermination Order from Governor Boggs, Hyrum Smith’s sunglasses… the Church has brought out some major artifacts (all safely protected under glass but still quite visible and legible).
I also briefly toured the kids’ area, which has been redone and which features a number of displays and activities, from build your own temple to the inevitable touchscreen environments. It’s bright and interesting. Overall the CHM is an excellent destination for families with children — important things are under glass, there are lots of activities and games, and it’s a highly visual and tactile environment.
Basically, it comes down to this: the Church History Museum is probably the best tourist stop at Temple Square. It showcases our history and our worldwide culture better than any other Church exhibit. We can be proud of the efforts made to preserve our history and present it in a fair but ultimately inspiring way.