Celebrating living history

Church museum holds treasures from the past

Published: Monday, Sept. 21 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

An exhibit chronicling LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley's history as a church leader is on display at the LDS Church History Museum in Salt Lake City.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

Perhaps it's the christening gown so carefully crafted by the young woman crossing the Atlantic Ocean a century and a half ago. She was anxious to rejoin her fiance, who had gone ahead to the Great Salt Lake Valley and homesteaded in Coalville. Once the two were reunited and married, the christening gown eventually was worn by not only the woman's children and grandchildren but her great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren as well — 86 descendants in all.

Or maybe it's the peg leg worn by the man who at age 6 lost his limb in a mining explosion in Wales. As an adult, he walked the Great Plains of North America with his wife, limping on a wooden leg that left his stump so painful and bloody that he couldn't sleep at night. Instead, he filled his journal with westward-trek worries of other physical toils — those suffered by his wife, who was pregnant with their first child.

They are among the narratives breathing life into the artifacts and exhibits of the Church History Museum, and "stories like these are examples of the miracle of Mormon history," said Steven L. Olsen, the former acting museum director who recently moved to work in the Office of the Presiding Bishop.

"And as Jimmy Durrante used to say," Olsen added, " 'We've got hundreds of them.' "

Chronicling those hundreds of stories and the rest of the two-centuries-long history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Church History Museum this year celebrates its own quarter-century of existence.

It also stands ready to take history into the future.

Originally christened the Museum of Church History and Art when it opened in 1984, the Church History Museum still follows its original pattern — a collection of interpretive exhibits with the goal of telling a story with historical elements, whether they be actual artifacts, documents, photographs, three-dimensional recreations or other arts and visuals.

The result was a simple purpose — "a gospel message imbedded in a historical context," said Glen M. Leonard, the former museum director who retired in 2007 after a 26-year tenure of drafting, planning and guiding the museum.

From its initial master plan, the museum continues to feature two flagship exhibits — "A Covenant Restored" on the main floor and "Presidents of the Church" on the second, with appropriate updating and new acquisitions for both over the past 25 years.

The "Covenants" exhibit chronicles LDS Church history from Joseph Smith's First Vision to the trek west to the Salt Lake Valley, then continues by highlighting some enduring principles and practices — such as missionary work — in following the church into the 21st century. And the "Presidents" exhibit gives individual attention to details from the lives of the church presidents, from founding Prophet Joseph Smith to current President Thomas S. Monson.

Over the years, the Church History Museum has flanked its key permanent displays with a cadre of temporary exhibits — some changing every year or two, others staying for a shorter period. The museum also served as the original host of the church's International Art Competition — a popular show held every three years that originally was based on a historical theme but has since expanded to doctrinal and scriptural themes and relocated to the LDS Conference Center because of the number of entries and the greater display space.

Provided with all the exhibits are what Leonard calls "pyramids of information" — headlines summarize the story, subtexts offer additional insight, and full texts that provide in-depth perspective. "In just one of our exhibits, you could spend hours," he said.

The museum's three temporary exhibits this fall feature a Latin flavor — Latter-day Saint legacies through oral histories, an art display on Book of Mormon stories for children and the history of the church in Mexico as it completes its first century there.

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