A Conversation about Acquisitions for the Museum of Church History and Art

“A Conversation about Acquisitions for the Museum of Church History and Art,” Ensign, July 1986, 76–77

A Conversation about Acquisitions for the Museum of Church History and Art

“Gathering our Heritage,” an exhibit of recent museum acquisitions, is on display at the Museum of Church History and Art. The Ensign spoke with Richard G. Oman, curator of acquisitions for the museum, about the museum’s acquisition efforts. Here is a portion of that conversation.

Q: What types of items is the museum interested in obtaining?

A: The museum collects a broad range of items, anywhere from art to folk art, traditional crafts, and historical artifacts. We want the collection to represent the peak of LDS artistic achievement, as well as items representative of Church history and culture. When Church members walk into the museum, I hope there will be a feeling of coming home. That’s why this newest exhibit—which I call “recent attic”—contains, in addition to the items one might expect to see—like oil paintings, antiques, and Church historical artifacts—things like LDS bumper stickers, plastic Relief Society grapes, and the rock art missionary figure that was a favorite of President Kimball.

Q: Why do you have artifacts from such a wide artistic range?

A: This is first and foremost a museum of the Latter-day Saint people. The Church has a fantastically rich art tradition because we have so many different cultures within the Church to draw from.

Many people think of art in a very traditional sense—either a painting with a gold frame or a bronze or marble sculpture. Certainly, these are art forms, but if we define art so narrowly, we miss a good deal. I sometimes feel that our missionary work has outstripped our cultural perceptions of our fellow Saints around the world—that is, some of us don’t understand the cultural implications of being a world church. We must stretch our perceptions of what constitutes art to enjoy the creativity and talents of Latter-day Saints no matter where they live.

Each culture has its own art forms, and we have many outstanding LDS artists in diverse areas. For example, Hadi Pranoto, a branch president in the Yogyakarta Branch in central Java, Indonesia, is a prominent artist in batik, the country’s leading visual art form. Juan Zarte, a branch president in Momostenango, Guatemala, and an outstanding weaver on large floor looms, was chosen by the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture to represent that art form in an international cultural exchange program. He and his wife card, dye, spin, and weave the wool in their home. We have artists like Charlotte Andersen, a superb quilter from Kearns, Utah, whose quilts have won awards in the national Statue of Liberty competition against hundreds of the best quilters from all over the United States.

One of the most famous of all LDS artists is a Hopi Indian potter from Polacca, Arizona. Fannie Nampeyo Polacca is featured extensively in literature on American Indian art and is world renowned for her exquisite Hopi pottery.

Q: How do you keep track of so many LDS artists?

A: We keep extensive files, which we add to almost daily, of hundreds of LDS artists from all over the world. We often find their names in professional publications and exhibits, or they are referred to us either by professionals in the field or by Church members. We try to keep track of the artists’ training, exhibitions, and awards or prizes, along with slides of their work. Sometimes we come across master artists that are new to us; other times, the artists are still working their way up. We try to encourage them and urge them to keep us posted on their careers and achievements. We also welcome artists and craftsmen to contact the museum, and we encourage members to give us good leads on outstanding LDS artists in their areas.

Q: You spoke earlier of “stretching our perceptions of what constitutes art.” How can the museum help us to do that?

A: By helping people understand an art form in its cultural context. We do this by first acquiring some of the tools used in that art form and examples of pieces in various stages of completion. Next we try to acquire outstanding traditional pieces so that if, for example, the Indonesian minister of culture looked at our batiks, he would agree that we have some superb pieces. This not only helps us understand the form but gives the artist credibility within his own cultural group.

Then we try to encourage the artist to use his art to focus on some aspect of his LDS experience. For example, we have a pictorial Navajo rug by Leta Keith, a very talented artist from near Kayenta, Arizona. The rug depicts a typical Navajo landscape with a hogan and small flock of sheep. Also in the picture is a pickup truck and two white-shirted missionaries. Another fine example is a beautiful batik made by President Pranoto depicting the second coming of Christ.

Q: What type of historical artifacts are you gathering?

A: Any items that help tell the story of the founding and growth of the Church, or of individual Saints and their faith and contributions. For example, we have the printing press that the first Book of Mormon was printed on in Palmyra, New York, and a chair made by Brigham Young, who was a furniture maker before joining the Church.

We also have a British ha’penny that belonged to the oldest son of a Scottish family. When he joined the Church, his father warned him he would lose his inheritance unless he renounced his new faith. The son remained devout and received the ha’penny as his inheritance. Before donating it to us, his family cherished the coin for generations as an example of their ancestor’s steadfast faith and sacrifice.

The museum is looking for items that reflect the beginnings of the Church in each country. Sometimes those items are fairly recent, such as a beautifully embroidered banner made by sisters in the West Lombardi District, Italy, to commemorate the Church’s sesquicentennial in 1980. The banner depicts the coat of arms from each city in the district that has a branch of the Church. We also have some rhythm instruments used by the first converts in Nigeria to accompany their hymn singing.

We have been commanded by the Lord to keep a historical record of the Saints. (See D&C 21:1; D&C 47:3.) This museum exists to help document the Church’s nonwritten record.

Objects in the museum

The museum encourages artists to focus on some aspect of their LDS experience. For example, Leta Keith’s rug depicts missionaries teaching the Navajo Indians.

Photo by Jed Clark