I think it really all starts with knowing your story. We have a rich collection of artifacts, artwork. But none of that really comes together until you know the story that you're trying to tell. The story that we have woven throughout the exhibit are stories of people learning to trust the Lord, learning to quiet their own sense of human will and listen instead to the divine will. I mean, the restoration of the gospel is an incredible story. And it consists of a lot of individual stories, a lot of smaller stories, and I think that's what we're going to get at in this exhibit. In my life, the more I've learned about the individual people and what they faced--the decisions they made, the mistakes they made, as well as the challenges and obstacles that they overcame--it has really increased my personal faith. What I want them to experience is this wonderful gift that we have all been given in that the heavens are open again--the gift of the gospel being restored and how that can change your life and make your life better. The museum is a way to share the glories of the restoration of the gospel in this dispensation. It's not just the same old story that you've been hearing, you know, for a long time. I think you'll get a whole new perspective.
This story is the story of my faith. It isn't just the story of Joseph Smith, and it isn't just the story of Brigham Young. It's my story and it's your story, and we hope it will spread and be the story of all mankind.
I was in a graduate program up at the University of Utah in 1983 and 1984. And just shortly before Christmas, Glen Leonard, who was the first director at the Church History Museum, gave me a call, and he said, "We're moving into a new building, and we need some help." I became aware of the discussions that were going on about a potential museum. That was a museum that was a fulfillment of a vision by a woman by the name of Florence Jacobsen, a wonderful woman who had a story to tell about the collections the Church owned. She wanted to showcase and to share these art and artifacts with the larger Church membership and the visitors to Temple Square. And at each step, Florence Jacobsen was there to lead the way. The museum's plan was to use historical artifacts and tell Church history and let the history be the faith-promoting element--the stories that go with the people and the events of Church history. It was trying to tell that the history of the Church can be understood in terms of covenants. From that perspective, we understood covenants not simply as mutual promises, but as the foundation of our identity as Latter-day Saints and the basis of our eternal relationship with Heavenly Father. It's a sad moment to see an old friend, the Covenant Restored, go, and all of those wonderful exhibits and stories that we were telling there in that exhibit. But it's also very exciting to see something new coming in a new century, in a new time, when we as museum people tell stories in a new and different way than we did 30 years ago.
The reason for the renovation really is more than one single reason. The building itself needed some upgrades done. The building is somewhat dated, but the structure's sound, and it's in fantastic condition. There's a great deal of design and engineering that goes into each one of these structures, so we definitely take this serious. The other factor, I think, is just the Church's attitude about its own history. We've just learned so much more about the history of the Church, and so we want to be current. We want to be relevant. We're being transparent about the things like the seerstone, the fact that there are multiple accounts of the First Vision. And I think this is a good thing. So we saw a need to bring in new technology, to bring in a better story of the Restoration. There's this really common notion that history is stagnant--that once you've established the history of something, that that's it. But history actually is this really wonderful, living, growing, evolving thing. And as time passes, you learn more history and you catch nuances and you find new sources that add to the story and enrich your understanding of historical events. The exhibit is called The Heavens Are Opened, which is conveying this idea that we live in a new dispensation where revelation was again on the earth. And we used that idea in actually executing the planning and design of the exhibits. We always start with audience. We always start with "Who are the people who will come and experience this?" One of the things about museum exhibits: lots of people are involved in the process.
The curator historians start things with the ideas and the stories. But then other professional writers and educators and other people come in and take that script and work it into other things, which is what you actually see in the museum. The educators that I work with are terrific. They really understand communication and how people need to be able to understand the context and have their own experience, have their own sense of "This means something to me. This is relevant to me." Church history is really just a bunch of personal experiences all put together. One of my jobs has been to take those experiences and try to translate them into meaningful things for people today. That's part of what we do as historical interpreters. We try to bring meaning to the past and make it meaningful in the present. We never want to lose sight of the fact, however, that in a museum, the artifacts are the key pieces that everything else hangs on, because that's what museums have to offer that you can't get at home on your computer or in a movie or other things. You have authentic physical objects. The artifacts that you'll see, these were witnesses, of a sort, to history. These were the actual items that we read about in books. These things tell of the everyday lives of these individuals and remind us that they are just human.
Once an item enters a collection, our goal is to, as much as possible, keep it in the state that it was in when it came into the collection. It's like we want to freeze it in time so that we keep the story of the artifact, or whatever story is evident in the artifact, intact. We have the opportunity to look at how we take care of the collection. And the beauty of it is, we're using some new technologies that limit the light exposure some of these artifacts get. Smart glass is a photovoltaic glass that becomes pretty clear when you engage it with electricity. So it's a great technology that allows us to display a lot of really rare artifacts without doing damage to them by the light that's coming in. So you may go up to a case and you may think, "Oh, there's nothing in there, it's empty," but when you step up to it, it lights up. We've chosen about 200 objects which are real gems. They are real star objects. And we've chosen to take these stars and put them into cases that you can really see them, you can really have visual accessibility to wonderful documents, to incredible artifacts. There's a power that comes from having a piece of history right there on the table in front of you. And we wanted to be able to share that sense with our visitors. Art used in a history exhibit is a little bit different because the art becomes an illustration to illustrate or carry a story or a historical concept. The art becomes, in essence, similar to an artifact. There are two murals that were commissioned for this exhibit that I'm so excited to see. One of them is of the Nauvoo Temple. It's a winter scene. There's ice on the lake. We were trying to capture the moment where historic records tell us that the temple was open 24 hours a day. The Saints were very anxious to get their endowments before they traveled west. The mural is going to be on that back wall, past the martyrdom, past all of these steps and all these things that happened in Nauvoo. What's important at the end of that story is that the temple was constructed. We also commissioned Doug Fryer to do another mural, this one in Missouri.
The Saints were feeling really hopeless, really discouraged. While they were camped out, there was this gigantic meteor shower. And it's recounted all over the world, not just in journals of the Saints. Most of the popular journals of that time make reference to this dramatic meteor shower. But for the Saints, it wasn't just this scientific thing that happens, but it felt like a sign that God was watching them, that Heavenly Father was aware of their sufferings, and this was a kind of outpouring of His love.
The meteor shower felt to them that they were seen, that they were heard, and that God was aware of them.
Well, the story is everything.
When we meet with clients early on, we'll tell them design is important, graphics are important, but the story drives the experience. What we tried to do was take more of the factual information and try to put meaning into it. We went through a number of different approaches. Sometimes you get these stories of these different characters in our Church history. You need to hear the back story to realize that that little story you hear is so compelling and so interesting. So at times it's been a challenge to take these long narratives and cut them down to these little digestible bites that you can come up and just quickly browse through and engage with. We worked a lot on finding the right tone and having it feel true in a way that would resonate with LDS members but still feel truthful and honest for visitors outside the Church. The thing that I have appreciated the most about working with such artisans is that they bring a different perspective to this story. They are not members of our faith, but they have taken on this story as if it were their own, and they have taught us things about our story that we didn't understand or that we didn't recognize or that we didn't appreciate. We as a group--Pacific Studio, and including myself--come
from a very diverse background. We come from theater, we come from film, we come from carpentry and construction and all sorts of different aspects. And as a company, we're able to bring a lot of different perspectives to the project. Sometimes we get caught in a bit of a vocabulary that is unique to the Church. And I think they help us tell our story better to the public at large. I was raised Catholic, and I never thought of the Mormon Church as a Christian religion. Working on this has been a real eye-opener for me. It is a Christian religion. It just gives people a chance to see a lot of the characters they've heard about like Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and to see them in more of a personal light. These were real people that had the same kind of concerns and issues, desires, thoughts, struggles--spiritually, emotionally, and so on--as we do. The single biggest thing that will be unique to this exhibit is the 270-degree Vision Theater, which will allow patrons to feel as if they're in the Sacred Grove watching the First Vision unfold. It would be a mistake to see this as just another Joseph movie. I mean, we've done--the Church has done several really very good movies and depictions of the First Vision and of Joseph and his family. But this is quite different. This is an immersive experience designed to help the visitor understand this experience from Joseph's perspective. What is so powerful about this story is really the simplicity of the story--the
simple faith of a young man that knelt before his Father in Heaven to ask which church he should join. I remember sitting in one of our early meetings when we were planning the Vision Theater and having Elder Holland tell us specifically that he wanted to be sure that we were authentic and that the messages we were sending were real. It draws from different accounts of the First Vision. And I think that's so powerful. We have taken all of the accounts of the First Vision and put them together and blended them in a way that people will be able to experience the same story. The story hasn't changed. But some of the language that will be available to the visitor will be language they maybe haven't heard before. Joseph went about telling that story at different times throughout his life. He was talking to different audiences; there were different purposes. But it's all part of that same story. You feel like you're there. In that moment in time, God spoke to His prophet again--spoke
to us. The heavens are open, and Heavenly Father wishes us to know how much He loves us and that our Savior is real and that He lives. It functions as a kind of response to the Awakening Wall, where people will be introduced to the kinds of questions and struggles that people had in the early 19th century. There was a yearning for religion; there was this quest. The Awakening Wall, when you first walk in the museum, is a big video wall. And on there we're trying to tell the story of this religious awakening that people felt in the 1820s. And that helps set the context for the Smith family--who are also introduced shortly thereafter--and then, of course, ultimately the context for Joseph himself. And then we'll go into a little bit about the Book of Mormon, how we got it, how it was printed, the establishment of the Church. And we wanted to create an experience with this interactive that people could sit down, hear some of the words that are being spoken, and try to take this dictation. You've got to remember when Joseph spoke those words, he wasn't speaking in a sentence, like, from beginning to end. He was just saying words, and he didn't quite know where the sentence would begin or where it would end. They'll be moving in parallel with Joseph Smith and other members of the Church as they seek out the answers, and then, by the end of the exhibit, the answers are revealed. And as a visitor, hopefully, you'll feel that you've learned something new. I mean, that's our real goal. You've learned something, you've been surprised, you've been touched emotionally, and you can leave with some good memories and some new information. There's something tangible about a historical artifact that can transport you back in time and give you a sense of the authenticity and the reality of that experience. There's something inspiring about art that can tell a story with the stroke of a brush. There's something engaging about technology that immerses you into a story or an experience. By using these different storytelling methods, we're better able to connect with people's learning styles, with people's learning preferences, with things that engage them in different ways. It's been a real privilege to work with many individuals and different entities of the Church in bringing this to pass. I think visitors to the new Church History Museum will be excited to see the title The Heavens Are Opened, which really describes and encapsulates what we're trying to tell in the new exhibit.
This exhibit is a chance to see Church history again with new eyes. It's an incredible opportunity to be up close and personal with the authentic stories of the past. I would extend a warm and enthusiastic invitation to everyone to come and see these new exhibits, to see the museum in its new form and the materials that are going to be there. It won't be enough to say that you saw it a few years ago. This is a wholly new and redefined and redeveloped presentation, and it will be inspiring for everyone.