Church History Museum: 'Unnumbered multitudes' appreciate builders of the past

The Church History Museum has served approximately 500,000 visitors since re-opening in September 2015 after a sweeping renovation of its exhibition spaces, which now include more interactive learning experiences than ever before.

Museum director Alan Johnson said that while the amount of physical gallery space remained unchanged, the museum went from hosting up to 200,000 patrons in a given year, to welcoming more than 373,000 guests during 2016, the museum’s first full year of operation after completing renovations.

“We believe it’s giving things to people that are a little more relevant to them in their lives,” Brother Johnson said of the dramatic visitor increase. “It’s really drawing them in based on the content and the way we’ve chosen to present it.”

President Gordon B. Hinckley, then-second counselor in the First Presidency, originally dedicated the facility in 1984, and before offering the dedicatory prayer, foretold of the throngs that would walk through the museum doors.

“Unnumbered multitudes of people will visit this museum in the years to come,” President Hinckley said. “Their appreciation for the builders of the past will be enhanced. There will be stirred within them a desire to seek for the good and the beautiful, and to preserve it for the future.”

Visionary virtual visit

The September 2015 re-opening introduced “The Heavens Are Opened” exhibit to the public and highlights Joseph Smith’s First Vision as a centerpiece of the Restoration. The new exhibit — described as “a sensory experience” — replaced a 27-year-old exhibit called “A Covenant Restored,” and added approximately two dozen more interactive media pieces as well as more than 100 artifacts.

Museum planners transport visitors to upstate New York near the Sacred Grove with the new First Vision Theater, which features a 240-degree wrap-around screen where more than 200 audio channels create a soundscape that engulfs audiences in an authentic forest environment.

The museum screens the short film “Ask of God: Joseph Smith’s First Vision” every 10-15 minutes in the modern panoramic theater, and presents an immersive experience of the First Vision based upon nine different existing accounts of the event — four of which were recorded by Joseph Smith.

A key aim in the Church History Department’s mission is to collect, preserve and share the history of the Church and does so in-part through the museum by showcasing the growing spiritual, artistic and cultural legacies of Latter-day Saints in the Church’s history, as well as early Salt Lake-area history, Brother Johnson said.

“The museum is a wonderful place for people to be able to come and see real artifacts, original art and also really have a chance to interact with those things as well,” he said. “Not only do we have items that people can see and read about and learn about, we also have folks here at the museum — we call them our interpreters, or our docents — that are there for questions.”

While the 40-seat theater comprises a part of “The Heavens Are Opened,” the remainder of the space is organized in chronological order beginning with the First Vision and concludes when early Latter-day Saints departed from Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1846.

Hands-on history

Expanded education programs include the new “Teaching Carts” program that places activity stations throughout museum galleries for one-on-one learning opportunities. One station shares a replica of the Golden Plates where one can pick up an estimated representation of how much the plates weighed.

Another teaching cart activity station invites families and individuals to play like pioneers with 19th century toy replicas such as whimmy diddles, a rhythm toy with a characteristic sound caused by rubbing a smooth stick back and forth over a notched stick. Visitors also can play with classic limberjack toys, small wooden human figures with movable limbs. Meanwhile, trained museum volunteers explain the story being showcased at any given teaching cart activity.

“We really wanted to provide hands-on learning activities, because visitor studies suggest that tactile experiences are memorable and help [they] connect with what they are seeing,” said Tiffany Bowles, who has served as a museum educator for nearly five years.

“One of the big things we want to do through our programming here at the museum is let visitors create memories and have meaningful experiences. I think the teaching carts have been an important part of that because they do provide that interaction as people learn new concepts or ideas.”

Another program called “Be a Museum Detective” was intended for youth ages 12-18, but due to its highly interactive nature, Sister Bowles said the 30-minute presentation easily appeals to families with younger children. Young detectives file into a large auditorium and respond to questions projected on a screen by using handheld remote controls. The results are displayed on the screen and visitors attempt to solve various Church history mysteries.

For example, a Church artifact displayed in “The Heavens Are Opened” exhibit shows the Book of Commandments and Revelations opened to a page where several early Church members signed a testimony of the revelations in the book as being true. One of these early members signed in pencil and he wrote the words “never to be erased” next to it. Who was it? Detectives discover the man was a distant relative to U.S. Declaration of Independence signatory John Hancock.

“We tried to design our exhibit and our programs in a way that’s easily accessible for visitors of all ages and backgrounds,” Sister Bowles said. “We’ve really tried to provide focused and thematic experiences here at the museum, and to help visitors find meaning and relevance as they view our exhibits."

She said families with younger children can participate in museum activities and explained how the “Living History” program has museum personnel dress in era-themed pioneer wardrobe during special events. Children, Sister Bowles said, seem to especially enjoy seeing clothing and items that they are not familiar with.

“We believe that as we provide good experiences for children at the museum that they will want to continue to come back as they grow older,” she said. “We’re kind of preparing a new generation of museum visitors as we appeal to our younger audiences."

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