As museums preserve and share pioneer heritage, communities benefit

Published: Monday, July 22 2013 4:36 p.m. MDT

Daughters of Utah Pioneers volunteer Annette Jeppson shows an 1884 silk wedding dress to (from left) Kryssa Kerr, Kayley Kerr and Kenna Kerr at the American Fork DUP Museum.

Sharon Haddock

AMERICAN FORK — A wedding dress of homespun silk.

A bell clapper almost too heavy to heft.

Bathtubs made of tin. Bobbin lace gloves.

All are on display in the Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum in American Fork and play a part in telling the history of the community — a history that needs to be told more fully and to more people.

That's what Britten Harmon, an undergraduate at Brigham Young University majoring in social and cultural anthropology, is finding as she researches the impact of such displays and museum collections throughout Utah.

"I'm in awe of all the artifacts that are here and the stories that go with them. It's a shame that there is this disconnect between the museums and the community," Harmon said. "I'm trying to find out where the disconnection lies."

Harmon is writing a thesis about the DUP collections and their impact. She's halfway through her research and finding some enlightening information as she talks with docents, directors, visitors and community members.

"Of those I have interviewed so far, most don't know the smaller DUP museums exist or fully appreciate what's inside," she said.

Advertising and communication with the public are really lacking, Harmon added, probably because the DUP organization doesn't consider itself a business.

"There are definitely things that are really great. For one, their collection is so vast that many people within their own community can come to these museums and see histories, photos and artifacts of their own ancestors, and not just those that are (members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)," Harmon said.

"My family and I had no idea our own ancestors' artifacts were in their collection. One director told me, 'This is the best documented history of a settlement anywhere,' but without advertising they've mainly had to rely on word of mouth."

There are currently 115 museums and historic collections in Utah, said Maurine P. Smith, president of the International Society of Daughters of Utah Pioneers. Smith was in Utah County recently to visit the DUP museum at 50 S. 100 East.

The museums are run by volunteers like Karen Adams, the current museum director and past president of the American Fork DUP chapter.

Adams has worked long hours at the museum, cataloguing and expanding the museum collection, preserving it and making it easily accessible.

At the local museum, visitors can now go on a history hunt, learn the words to the state song and check out the skein of silk spun by silkworms raised in American Fork, as well as find out about bobbin lace and the layout of the original town fort and hear stories of the original homesteaders.

Adams applied for and has received a grant from the Utah Division of Arts and Museums and the Office of Museum Services to pay for replacement of the fluorescent lighting in the museum with ultraviolet filters and more energy-efficient bulbs. Occupancy sensors will be installed as part of a plan to better preserve the display items, such as the 1884 golden silk wedding outfit worn by Melissa Ann Boley at her Christmas wedding. (The Independent Electrical Contractors of Utah will donate the labor for the replacement.)

Adams would love to do more, including expanding outreach programs and extending the hours of operation of the museum, but it seems an overwhelming task.

Smith said the solution is to get more community members aware and involved.

"It's obviously a loss when we're not open," Adams agreed, referring to the two-day, eight-hour schedule for the museum.

The museum, which hosted 1,700 visitors last year, invites school, church and Scouting groups, along with history lovers, to tour the building and soak up pioneer history.

If there's enough of that, the community as a whole benefits, Harmon said.

"If you don't know where you came from, you really don't know where you're going," Smith said. "The more you know, the deeper the appreciation."

If you go:

What: DUP activities including a handcart pull, soap-making demonstration, storytelling, fiddler music and museum access

When: 1-5 p.m., Wednesday, July 24

Where: Robinson Park east area, 100 E. Main St., American Fork

Cost: free

Sharon Haddock is a professional writer with more than 35 years experience, 17 at the Deseret News. Her personal blog is at sharonhaddock.blogspot.com. Email: haddoc@deseretnews.com

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