“Conversation: Church Museum Strengthens Members and Visitors,” Ensign, June 1997, 77–78
Located across the street west of Temple Square in Salt Lake City, the Museum of Church History and Art strengthens members and visitors of other faiths. Museum replicas and artifacts help patrons better appreciate Latter-day Saint history, and museum artwork encourages patrons to create and enjoy culturally diverse responses to the gospel. To find out more about the museum’s significance to the worldwide Church, the Ensign spoke with Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy, executive director of the Church’s Historical Department, and with Elder John K. Carmack of the Seventy, assistant executive director of the Historical Department.
Question: Will you tell us the role a museum serves in the Church?
Answer: When President Spencer W. Kimball announced the new museum in an address delivered on 12 August 1980, he said: “We are connected with our past and we can fashion a better future if we draw upon the inspiration of the past and the lessons of history, both as a people and individually. … When there is proper regard for the past and its people, we enrich the present as well as the future” (“Remarks by President Spencer W. Kimball,” in Proceedings of the 1980 World Conference on Records, 1:1–2, LDS Church Archives).
The Church museum is perhaps the most tangible way of accomplishing what President Kimball described. The museum gives visitors the opportunity to experience history through the senses of sight, hearing, touch, and even smell, as in a recent exhibit on Mormon pine furniture, which included simulated smells of turpentine and freshly cut pinewood. The museum does in one place what Church history sites do in a more scattered fashion—gives context to our history. We can believe deeply in something, but when it is put into context by witnessing the stories and artifacts, it becomes more powerful and real.
The idea of remembering is doctrinally important. The words memorial, memory, remember, and remembrance appear in the scriptures numerous times. In the Book of Mormon, Alma asks: “Have you sufficiently retained in remembrance the captivity of your fathers?” (Alma 5:6). Alma was pointing the people toward their dynamic history. He realized it is harder to appreciate where we are and where we should go without remembering where we have been.
In addition to being a repository of Church history, the museum is a showcase of Latter-day Saint art. “Spiritually successful artists have the unique opportunity to present their feelings, opinions, ideas, and perspectives of eternity in visual and sound symbols that are universally understood,” wrote Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “Great art touches the soul in unique and uncommon ways. Divinely inspired art speaks in the language of eternity, teaching things to the heart that the eyes and ears can never understand” (“Filling the World with Goodness and Truth,” Ensign, July 1996, 10).
Art has much power for good, but particularly in modern times it has also been employed as a tool of evil. The museum provides a significant, unique opportunity for presenting the good, the moral, and the noble in art. The museum’s influence—particularly the occasional international art competitions the museum sponsors—motivates Latter-day Saints worldwide to express themselves artistically.
Visitors from near and far often comment about how exceptional and impressive the museum is. It is important to remember that the overriding purpose of the museum’s exhibits and collections is to invite all to come unto Christ.
Q: What are some of the museum’s features?
A: One of the most important exhibits in the museum, which is especially appropriate during this sesquicentennial pioneering year, is a permanent exhibit on the main floor titled “A Covenant Restored.” This remarkable exhibit portrays the history of the Church from its beginnings in upstate New York to the present day. Visitors can look into a covered wagon, climb into an immigrant ship’s bunk, and relive Brigham Young’s 1847 pioneer trek. The exhibit is built around the sacred ordinances of the gospel. Without the restoration of the covenant between God and man, the Latter-day Saints would not have performed such historically important feats. Taken as a whole, the exhibit has a very meaningful religious significance.
Another popular permanent exhibit is titled “Presidents of the Church.” Visitors learn about the lives and times of the men who have served as Presidents of the Church through viewing personal belongings and artifacts that help explain each man’s contributions to the Church. Voice recordings of many of the more recent Presidents allow patrons to hear their testimonies in their own voices. It touches people powerfully to see, for example, something Brigham Young kept in his pocket and tools he used as a carpenter. Near this exhibit is a portrait gallery of early and current members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Also on the second level of the museum, an impressive gallery contains a permanent exhibit of 19th-century and early-20th-century Latter-day Saint artistic masterpieces. In addition, the museum stages art exhibits that change every six to eight months. Currently a large exhibit titled “150 Years of Pioneering” is showing 150 works of art selected from among nearly 600 pieces submitted to the museum’s Fourth International Art Competition. Members from 38 U.S. states and 31 countries worldwide participated in this event.
Q: How can members get the most out of the museum?
A: The museum is a dynamic place. Exhibits rotate with some regularity, and patrons can learn about Church history and art not only through reading museum brochures and educational signs and labels but also through using interactive stations, viewing films, taking guided tours, and participating in other museum programs. For the “Covenant Restored” exhibit, a free 40-minute recorded tour is available in English and Spanish. Visitors can take home a piece of Church history and art by visiting the museum store, where exhibit catalogs, postcards, posters, prints, notecards, and gifts are available. The museum is a good place for families to visit because many exhibits appeal to children, particularly exhibits that are hands-on and interactive. The museum is user-friendly for all age-groups.
The museum hosts about 300,000 visitors a year. A good percentage of those are Church members; the museum touches them and helps deepen their gospel roots. But the museum also fills a missionary purpose. People who visit Temple Square can learn much about the gospel at the visitors’ centers, but many also like to see real artifacts related to the gospel, such as actual pages from the original Book of Mormon manuscript. By making a smorgasbord of exhibits available, the museum represents and reaches out to a wide variety of people. Whether or not they have an opportunity to visit the museum in person, Latter-day Saints from all nations can feel good about the fact that the worldwide Church is celebrated there.
Displays such as these at the Museum of Church History and Art help patrons better appreciate Latter-day Saint history. (Photo courtesy of Museum of Church History and Art.)