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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Jodie Banks explores genealogy at the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015.

Finding and connecting with one’s ancestors amounts to creating a “Museum of Me,” said Dennis C. Brimhall, CEO of FamilySearch International, as he welcomed attendees Feb. 12 in the opening keynote session of the three-day RootsTech 2015 conference at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, deemed by organizers to be the largest family history conference in the world.

Brother Brimhall announced that 21,927 attendees had registered for the conference, nearly doubling last year’s attendance of some 13,000. This is the fifth year that FamilySearch, the Church’s Internet genealogy service, has put on the annual conference, and it has grown substantially each year.

“Celebrating Families across Generations” was the theme of this year’s conference, which offered more than 200 classes and an exhibit hall with some 200 booths and featured a slate of prestigious keynote speakers, including Laura Bush, former first lady of the United States; her daughter Jenna Bush Hager; and veteran entertainer Donny Osmond.

The Federation of Genealogical Societies, a group comprising hundreds of societies across the United States and other nations, linked its own conference with RootsTech this year, accounting for some of the boost in attendance.

In his keynote address, Brother Brimhall introduced the FamilySearch Discovery Center, for which a grand opening was held Feb. 11 at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City. It is a prototype high-tech activity center where visitors, particularly young people, can each become acquainted with his or her own family history. (See Church News, week of Feb. 15, pp. 8-9.)

“We’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it is about family history that causes people to like it,” Brother Brimhall told the keynote session audience. “And we’ve come to the realization that, for most people, it’s simply the joy of discovery. It’s the thrill of hunting and finding and learning something we didn’t know before.”

Describing family history as “the joy of connecting oneself to ancestors,” Brother Brimhall said it is “fun, exciting and, today, completely sharable.”

“What we’re really doing is creating a ‘Museum of Me,’ ” he said. “All of our ancestors are exhibits in the Museum of Me.”

Based on the concept of what such a museum would look like, the FamilySearch Discovery Center was created. With the aid of projections on huge screens he demonstrated some of the features of the center.

He demonstrated that each visitor receives a computer tablet on which the visitor can take a “selfie” photo and log in using his or her FamilySearch account name and password.

The visitor then docks the tablet at a station where a large touchscreen opens up giving information about meaning and frequency of his or her first and last name and events that were happening during the year of his or her birth.

Brother Brimhall showed that by docking at another station, the visitor sees a larger world map with icons representing ancestors at the various locations where they were born. Zooming in on locations and touching an icon, the visitor then can see information, photos and stories pertaining to the ancestor represented by the icon.

This is drawn from material that has been submitted to the FamilySearch Family Tree website by the visitor’s relatives.

One of the photos Brother Brimhall pulled up while demonstrating the function was a group photo from the wedding of his grandmother showing her with her eight sisters as bridesmaids. He said the photo had been so remarkable that it was featured in Life magazine.

“One of the wonderful things about the Museum of Me is that we can add to it,” he said. He pointed to his Aunt Joyce in the group photo and said that when he visited her recently she shared a family story. He then asked her to repeat the story as he recorded on his smartphone, and he uploaded it to FamilySearch Family Tree website. He played back his aunt’s retelling of the story as it is now preserved on the website.

“I now have have been able to add that to my Museum of Me as an exhibit,” Brother Brimhall said, drawing applause from the audience.

Regarding the map and ancestors feature at the Discovery Center, Brother Brimhall said, “I think this is really cool, but my grandkids don’t care about this; they just want something more engaging, more exciting. So I’m going to have to visit another part of this Museum of Me to see if I can do something that will be of interest to my grandkids.”

He took the computer tablet to the next station, where there was a photo of people in costumes from the period of time when his ancestors lived. “All I have to do is touch on them, and look what happens,” he said, as the faces in the photo were all transformed into his own face from the “selfie” he took with the computer tablet. This brought appreciative laughter and applause from the audience.

Ultimately, a visitor’s experience at the center is preserved and emailed to the visitor, an email that can then be shared with others, Brother Brimhall said.

“We’re pleased to announce this is not just hocus-pocus RootsTech magic,” he said, as he told of the Discovery Center grand opening that had taken place the day before.

“This is kind of a digital laboratory. It’s a place where we can explore ideas for getting people to make that transition from being interested to actually doing research.”

He explained that similar centers will be built around the world, including a smaller one this year near Seattle, Washington, and one in London, England.

“The goal is to see if we can take to many places a discovery experience, where families can come in and learn, and extend this out to our 4,800 family history centers around the world.”

Earlier in his address, Brother Brimhall spoke of the many commercial vendors who have partnered with FamilySearch to increase the pool of ancestral information available to persons seeking out their family history.

“FamilySearch and its partners represent over 10 billion records accessible through a hugely diverse patron experience,” he said. “We have a lot of partners doing really exciting things, and many of them are using the FamilySearch Family Tree data base. So we’ve developed a gallery of apps that you can access on FamilySearch.org. So you want to check this out and see if any of these apps, and many more that we have, might help you in your journey of discovery.”

As an example of how the partnerships help, he shared a letter he had received from a FamilySearch patron. The patron’s great-great-aunt filled out a pedigree chart in 1962, but all the information she had was her grandparents’ names.

The patron searched Ancestry.com, one of the FamilySearch partners, and found a drawing of her great-great-aunt’s mother. She then looked for that person’s parents in FamilySearch.org. She found that someone, probably a distant cousin, had posted photos of her parents. “I had never seen these before,” the patron wrote, “I was so happy to see these pictures of these ancestors. But I still didn’t know much about them.”

She went to another FamilySearch partner, FindMyPast, for further information. She found it on a census in England. That led to her finding more information.

“Using these websites, I was able to break through the brick wall of Aunt Julia’s pedigree chart,” the patron wrote.

“I loved that I could find all of this information that Aunt Julia had never had access to before in just a few searches on a few websites,” the letter concluded. “This branch of my family tree is leafier than ever. Thank you for making it possible.”

Brother Brimhall remarked, “Each of our partners held a piece of a puzzle that would then ultimately give a more complete picture. Today, more than ever, we have a huge variety of tools from which to choose to get the most done in our family history research.

“We at FamilySearch simply want you to use whatever tool gives you the best experience,” he said. “We just want you to discover more of your family history.”

Another keynote speaker at the session, Tan Le, spoke of her background as a daughter in a family of refugees from Vietnam who escaped that war-torn country in 1982 for their adopted homeland of Australia. She completed university studies at age 16, went on to earn a degree in law and became a successful entrepreneur, co-founding Emotiv, a company that developed computer technology that reads brain waves to identify neurological conditions. In her talk, she honored her grandparents for their tenacity and courage.

Mrs. Bush recalled visiting Salt Lake City for the Olympics in 2002 and calling on President Gordon B. Hinckley. “President Hinckley presented us with a beautiful genealogy report, and George and I were fascinated by the in-depth history he shared with us about our ancestors. We still treasure these documents, and we miss our brave Gordon.”

Her daughter, Mrs. Hager, a contributing correspondent on NBC’s “Today Show” interviewed her mother on stage. “What advice do you have for mothers and grandmothers?” she asked.

“Really savor these moments when they’re little,” Mrs. Bush replied. “Make your life what you want it to be right now, because that is all we know we have, and that is certainly true with babies.”

Family Discovery Day, a track of RootsTech sessions on the closing day, Saturday, Feb. 14, was expressly directed to Latter-day Saints. It drew some 20,000 in-person attendees, with some of the sessions streamed live for viewing over the Church’s Internet site, www.lds.org. Several Family Discovery Day sessions are reported in this issue of the Church News.

The closing event of Family Discovery Day appealed largely to the thousands of youthful attendees. It featured Studio C, a sketch comedy troupe from BYUtv that has gained millions of followers on Internet social media sites.

David Archuleta, a recently returned LDS missionary and a pop singer with an international fan base, performed a concert at the closing event. He composed a song, “Nunca Pense,” expressly for RootsTech 2015, which was featured in a video at the closing event. He performed the song live at the end of his concert.

In the video, a young man seems to imagine seeing his deceased ancestor, a guitar player. In some abstract imagery, the ancestor teaches the young man to play the guitar.

rscott@deseretnews.com

The LDS Church News is an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The publication's content supports the doctrines, principles and practices of the Church.