Visitors to Temple Square in Salt Lake City will be able to learn about the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the newly renovated Church History Museum. The museum, which first opened its doors in 1984, reopened to the public on Wednesday, September 30, 2015, following a one-year closure. The extensive interior renovation includes new interactive exhibits.
Museum director Alan Johnson says, “Visitors can expect a great combination of art, artifacts and multimedia so that we can help tell stories in the way that people prefer to receive information today.” Johnson notes that the Church History Department has made an effort to be authentic in the way it tells the early history of the Church.
“We’re taking people right to the source material. For example, the multiple accounts of the First Vision [of Church founder Joseph Smith]—we have copies of those in the gallery space that if people want to look through the actual documents, they’re welcome to do that. In fact, we welcome that,” he said.
Johnson says another example of that source material is an image of a seer stone. “It was one of many instruments that the Prophet Joseph Smith used to translate the golden plates into what we know today as the Book of Mormon.”
Artifacts and the new displays cover many key events and inspirational stories, beginning with the history of Joseph Smith and continuing through his visions and revelations, including other key events leading to the exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois (1820 to 1846). More artifacts from that era are on display than ever before.
“In terms of polygamy, we have firsthand accounts of those impacted by those experiences from their journals, and those are on display here as well,” added Johnson.
There is also an area of the museum that highlights the contributions of women in Church history and the organization of the Relief Society, which is now considered one of the largest women’s organizations in the world.
“Every new generation asks different questions of our history,” said Reid Neilson, assistant Church historian and recorder and managing director of the Church History Department. “The goal of the Church History Museum is to build the faith of the next generation of Latter-day Saints and to help others outside of our faith understand our history.”
A new permanent exhibit, The Heavens Are Opened, focuses on how the hand of God guided the establishment of the Church through Joseph Smith and the Mormon pioneers. To teach a new, tech-savvy generation in a meaningful way, the exhibit blends state-of-the-art interactive media with artwork and artifacts.
An interactive display features the early missionary work of the Church from 1830 to 1844. Another experience allows guests to try their hand at being a scribe of the Book of Mormon, which Church records indicate took three months to translate. Church members regard the book as scripture and another testament of Jesus Christ. Other attractions include the Grandin printing press that was used to produce the first 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon in Palmyra, New York, and a life-sized replica of Liberty Jail.
“One very unique feature of this exhibit is the 220-degree Vision Theater, which allows our visitors to feel as if they’re in the Sacred Grove watching the First Vision unfold,” said Johnson. The new film is considered the centerpiece of the exhibit.
“We hope that people come in and have an immersive experience, that they feel that they were here and part of that experience, and that they will leave with their interpretation of what this experience means to them personally,” explained Mike Weber, senior product manager of the Church History Department.
“At the end of the film, you’ll see that we actually take you up through the grove and overlook the valley,” said Weber. “What we’ve done is we’ve actually had a helicopter come in, tied to a camera with 12 different angles. And it rose through the trees to give us that shot.”
One area of the museum tells the story of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. Artwork depicting the event, pistols and Hyrum’s clothing with a visible bullet hole are among the artifacts on display. In 1844, a mob stormed the jail in Carthage, Illinois, killing Joseph and Hyrum.
“I hope that people come to this part in the exhibit and take a moment to realize that these were real people that went through a horrific event and get to know them a little bit better, get to know the context of what happened, and then they can draw their own conclusions about how they feel about those events,” said Johnson.
Maryanne Stewart Andrus, exhibitions and programs manager for the Church History Museum, said visitors will hear new perspectives. “We try to have a mix of people that were both known names that were quite commonly known — Oliver Cowdery and Parley Pratt and of course Joseph Smith [and] some of the ladies and women of Church history, … but then a blending with people who were lesser known, just kind of the everyday Latter-day Saint.” Cowdery was the chief scribe of the Book of Mormon, and Pratt was one of the Church’s early missionaries.
Involved in the planning from the beginning, Andrus said one of the most difficult stories to depict was how the Church grew simultaneously in Missouri and Kirtland, Ohio, but she said the space is one of her favorite rooms in the museum. “Seeing this room come to light for me … was really a joy.”
Andrus and her team were inspired to share the story of the Kirtland Temple era in a low-tech way. “It’s a very quiet space. It’s a very beautiful space. And I think it just allows [the] music and [the] artwork to tell, for me, what has become just a very personally important part of theRestoration.”
The Church History Museum is free and open to the public. Doors will reopen on Wednesday, September 30, at 9:00 a.m. MDT. The museum will be open Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. and on Saturday from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. The museum is closed on Sunday. For more information, visit history.lds.org/museum.