‘The Heavens Are Opened’: The Church History Museum Re-Opens

Hyrum Smith's sunglasses. Groovy.

Hyrum Smith’s sunglasses. Groovy.

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.

Wallet owned by Martin Harris

Wallet owned by Martin Harris

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.

Hyrum Smith's clothes, from the martrydom. Note the hole just below the waistband on the left side.

Hyrum Smith’s clothes, from the martrydom. Note the hole just below the waistband on the left side.

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).

Kids' Area. Not sure why a boat. Roll with it, adults.

Kids’ Area. Not sure why a boat. Roll with it, adults.

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.

The Extermination Order

The Extermination Order


  1. Thanks for the great review, and nice job grabbing that quick interview with Elder Holland!

  2. The boat is Lehi/Nephi’s for their journey to the promised land…

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Hyrum’s sunglasses look like something out of The Matrix. I had never seen those before. Thanks for the report.

  4. No fear in your voice when talking to E. Holland. Impressed. And nice of him to talk a little.

    Good review. I will give the museum a visit next time we’re in town.

  5. Hunter, I edited out the part where I quivered in fear and he rebuked me.

  6. Martin Harris’ wallet. That seems fitting somehow.

    Great article. Almost thou persuadest me to go see this exhibit if I’m ever in SLC again.

  7. Now I’ve got to go over next time I’m in town. Looks like a fun collection.

  8. The boat seems to be from the previous exhibit, kind of Book of Mormon themed, there was a boat in it.

  9. What’s a diorama?

  10. I’m excited to see the Richards art exhibit and also my friend who stars at Eliza R Snow in the new videos. I’m always up for updated media. We’ll have to try to stop by before it gets busy during Christmas light season.

  11. Rob, a quick search results in the wikipedia page explaining this as “(…) a three-dimensional full-size or miniature model, sometimes enclosed in a glass showcase for a museum.)


    But I’m sure you have found that yourself by now.

  12. Pretty sure that was a Simpsons reference.

  13. John Mansfield says:

    It’s six years since the Museum of Church History and Art was renamed the Church History Museum. It sounds like much of the second floor art space has been ceded to other purposes. Is that a correct understanding?

  14. The art on the second floor is limited to the international art competition.

  15. Thanks for the positive review, Steve, and strong endorsement in the final paragraph. Just one minor correction: The “extermination order” on display is actually a facsimile. The original (or at least the earliest extant version) is housed in the Missouri State Archives in Jefferson City.

  16. Seriously?? Why all the glass, then. Thanks for the correction.

  17. Next you’ll tell me those weren’t really the Golden Plates!

  18. John Mansfield says:

    So nothing by John Hafen, Minerva Teichert, or LeConte Stewart to be found anymore. I feel sad. I wonder where Girl Among the Hollyhocks is hanging now.

  19. Haha. That said, there are several original documents from the Church History Library on display, including the 6 April 1830 agreement (which has the earliest extant JS signature), the Book of Commandments and Revelations, the final page of the 20 March 1839 letter from Liberty Jail (D&C 121), and the earliest manuscript of D&C 132. There’s a lot packed into the permanent exhibit, more than can be effectively taken in in a single visit.

  20. er, 6 April 1829 agreement

  21. No, there’s a Teichert, but it’s a giclee. There is other art scattered throughout the museum, and much of the new exhibit is art focused on themes of the Restoration.

  22. So the boat seems to be for telling stories of the Savior, with the touch screen showing several boat & Jesus related stories. It’s not technically church history related (19th-20th century), but that’s the story.

    I think they just had this boat and didn’t want to throw it away. ‘Sides, it’s “for the kids”. What kid doesn’t love a boat they can play on?

  23. Kids love boats!

  24. Where can one see all the trek and UT church history exhibits that used to be there? Are those items back in unseen archives?

  25. I believe they’re in storage.

  26. -Where can one see all the trek and UT church history exhibits that used to be there?

    I have to admit I had a horrible thought – holy relics from various stake youth conference Trek outings. “Here’s the handcart we pushed, and this corner is where Brittney hit her head, and this metal thing is the triangle they used to beat to get us out of bed, and this is the little grave marker from when they made us bury a Cabbage Patch Kid out there by the cell phone tower….”

  27. AussieMormon says:

    So not being a US Mormon, I saw “trek” and thought of “Star Trek”. Which is silly, we all know it’s Star Wars that has the gospel stuff in it.
    Totally digging Hyrum’s steam-punk style sunnies though.

  28. LeAnn Mason says:

    I’m a docent at the museum and need to clarify one point. The Minerva Teichart portrait of Christ is the real deal. It originally hung in the Relief Society building but was brought to the museum. The RS was given a giclee in its place.

  29. I was told the other day by Alan Johnson that the RS got the original. LeAnn, what’s up????

  30. I appreciate that the first vision movie didn’t gloss over the sense of foreboding that nearly overcame Joseph during his prayer

  31. Yes. It’s really pretty good.

  32. The hardcore know that the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum to the west of the capital is still lightyears better as they have literally* hundreds of times more pioneer artifacts on display (including the rod of nature, Eliza’s pen that wrote ‘O My Father’, etc.).

    *yes I mean literally, literally–possibly a thousand times more, they have 5 floors folks.

  33. LeAnn Mason says:

    Steve, we’ve been in training for six months and Maryanne, the manager of the exhibit, told us emphatically the museum has the original, laser security and all.

  34. Only one way to find out: a séance. Let’s set one up pronto.

  35. LeAnn Mason says:

    I’m in. Shall we invite my darling son Patrick? He often speaks for the dead and nearly dead.

  36. Yes!

  37. Years ago I heard Richard Bushman give a Q&A after a forum address at BYU, and he related that he was serving as historical advisor to Richard Dutcher’s planned film on Joseph Smith, which I think I’m sad he never made. The script had Joseph and Hyrum in the opening scene walking down the street in Nauvoo, and one of them is wearing a pair of, as Dr. Bushman put it, “cool-dude sunglasses.” Dr. Bushman disputed that as an anachronism. Then he said something like, “And I’ll be darned if Richard Dutcher didn’t track down a pair of smoked-lens glasses, which the family records show originally belonged to their ancestor Hyrum Smith!”

    But I’d never seen a photo of them or heard other references to them.

  38. Ha ha AussieMormon! I agree with you on the “trek” thing. I once drove by White Elegance (a store around here that sells pretty pricey temple dresses etc.) and it had a “Trek clothing” banner hanging under the sign out front. It _was_ October at the time, so I guess this was why my brain went immediately to “Why are they selling Star Trek costumes?”.

  39. Years ago I sat by Richard Dutcher at a Sunstone roast of Hugh Nibley, I had no idea who he was but he had those glasses and showed them to all at the table. I guess he borrowed them for the movie?

  40. LeAnn Mason says:

    The Minerva Teichert Saga continues. I stand corrected, kind of. According to my latest source, a museum employee who shall remain nameless, the REAL portrait was indeed brought to the museum from the Relief Society building and hung with laser security and all. However, during an open house for the general authorities prior to the official opening, one of the brethren noticed that not 10 feet away were drawers full of – gasp!- CRAYONS to be used by children for rubbings. Knowing that the best laser system in the world is no match for a determined child with a crayon, the decision was quickly made to return the painting to the Relief Society and hang a giclee in it’s place.