Pioneer Memorial Museum: Salt Lake's treasure house of artifacts and stories is a 'secret' everyone can share

By Ray Boren

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, April 26 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Salt Lake City's Pioneer Memorial Museum houses thousands of 19th-century artifacts.

Ray Boren

Salt Lake City — As startling as the idea may seem, considering it is housed in a prominent colonnaded building at the top of Main Street, Salt Lake City's Pioneer Memorial Museum is something of a secret.

Not to everyone, of course, says Maurine P. Smith, president of the International Society Daughters of Utah Pioneers (DUP), which is headquartered in and operates this treasure trove of thousands upon thousands of artifacts, photographs and individual histories.

"Among fourth-graders studying Utah history, the museum is very popular," she says. "Sometimes we get seventh-graders, too."

On occasion, children teem the exhibit halls, visiting by the scores on day-trip tours, perhaps as many as 500 per week during the school year, Smith says. Excited, inquisitive voices bounce off the walls and exhibit cases.

And with the grand Utah State Capitol perched on its landscaped grounds to the northeast, tourists drop by as well, visiting from around the continent and from overseas, Smith says.

But local adults and families — they seem to be another story these days.

In hopes of giving them another option, the DUP has extended its hours into the evenings on Wednesdays. Pioneer Memorial Museum, at 300 N. Main St., is now open daily, Monday-Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with that Wednesday exception, when doors are open until 8 p.m. The museum is closed on Sundays.

Although they may be secrets of a sort, the DUP and its museum — and 114 smaller satellite pioneer museums and relic halls in Utah and around the Mountain West — don't wish to be, Smith says.

A stroll through the four-story Pioneer Memorial Museum and its adjoining two-story Carriage House illustrates why the collection, and the collectors, could be on the agenda for anyone interested in history, genealogy or just about anything else, for that matter. The facility is chock-a-block with curiosities.

The artifacts and archives showcase and preserve the history of a specific era, the days of pioneers, when Mormons dreamed of a homeland of their own — the "State of Deseret," spanning the West from the Rocky Mountains to the Sierra Nevadas and south to San Diego and the Pacific Ocean.

And in this trove, artifacts come in all sizes.

One of the largest?

The ornate proscenium curtain from the pioneers' Salt Lake Theatre, the city's once-beloved playhouse and lecture hall, might fit the bill. It is a focus of the museum's central hall, hanging from the rafters beneath an illuminating skylight.

Built in 1861, when the pioneer village had all of 12,000 residents, according to the Utah History Encyclopedia, the aging theater was razed in 1928. In the Brigham Young room beneath and just behind the curtain are three burgundy theater chairs once reserved for the pioneers' religious and political leader and his family and guests.

Among the smallest museum items?

How about locks of hair.

"Hair art" abounds on the walls and in the cases of Pioneer Memorial Museum. Snipping, preserving and displaying strands of loved ones' tresses was seemingly as popular during the 19th century as knitting and quilt-making. There are even personal pocket-book "samplers." One tiny example, made in Nauvoo, Ill., includes small locks braided and shaped into curves and knots, with hand-written instructions on how to mimic the designs.

Creations from these tresses and snippets include mementos such as watch fobs, bracelets and even framed designs.

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