Renovated in 2015, the Church History Museum has a rich collection and a long-standing history of helping individuals connect in personal and meaningful ways to “the great things of God” manifest in the history of a worldwide faith. With roots dating back to the early history of the Church in Nauvoo, Illinois, the first museum in the Utah Territory was established by Brigham Young’s son John W. Young in 1869. The Deseret Museum, as it came to be known, was the precursor to the Church History Museum.1
Read on to discover more about the Church History Museum’s purpose, organization, collection, and history of over 150 years.
The purpose of the Church History Museum is to provide engaging experiences for individuals and families to connect with the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the growing spiritual, artistic, and cultural legacies of its people. These experiences allow visitors to reflect on the faith and sacrifices of Latter-day Saints throughout history and around the world and, by doing so, to increase their own faith, gain a greater understanding of God’s dealings with men and women on this earth, and desire to know Him.
There are currently about 30 full-time employees at the museum, including administrative staff, curators, registrars, conservators, and educators. In addition, over 200 volunteer docents serve at the museum on a weekly basis, providing frontline educational programming and guest services.
The museum’s collection includes more than 150,000 historical artifacts that tell the story of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from its earliest beginnings up to the present day.
While the Church History Library is home to manuscript, print, and audiovisual records of the Church, the museum is the custodian of most other types of artifacts. These include collections of tools, clothing, furniture, and other personal belongings of Church leaders; pioneer relics; architectural remnants; artwork by and about Latter-day Saints, including folk art and decorative art such as quilts, lace work, and needlepoint; cultural objects from around the world; and memorabilia of all kinds of significance to the Church. Many items are on display at the museum and Church Historic Sites, and others can be viewed online in the Museum Treasures article series.
The Church History Museum has roots that can be traced back to the early history of the Church in Nauvoo, Illinois. In 1843, a notice published in Times and Seasons from the office of Joseph Smith called upon Latter-day Saints among all nations to bring their “antiquities” and “curiosities” to Nauvoo “for the purpose of establishing a museum of the great things of God, and the inventions of men.”2 Five years later, as the Saints prepared for westward migration, Brigham Young reiterated the call for a museum in a general epistle to Church members. Emphasizing the educational role of a museum, the epistle reads: “We also want all kinds of mathematical and philosophical instruments, together with all rare specimens of natural curiosities and works of art that can be gathered and brought to the valley, where, and from which, the rising generation can receive instruction; and if the Saints will be diligent in these matters, we will soon have the best, the most useful and attractive museum on the earth.”3
Today the Church History Museum stands as one of several Utah museums that grew out of these and other subsequent calls upon Latter-day Saints to build up a collection and establish a museum. In 1869, John W. Young, “following out suggestions of his father,” Brigham Young, founded the Deseret Museum as the first public museum in the Utah Territory.4 Brigham Young offered substantial support to his son’s personal business venture, providing the adobe structure that served as the museum’s first home and donating his own extensive private collections to the cause.5 Designed for both amusement and instruction, this museum exhibited “Utah at a glance” and highlighted both the natural environment and wildlife and the industry and history of the people.6 It was transferred to Church ownership in 1878 and was the precursor to the Church History Museum.
Although the Deseret Museum had different aims and a broader scope than the Church History Museum today, educating the public about the history of the Latter-day Saints was a clear interest from the beginning. Among the museum’s earliest acquisitions were “the sword of General Joseph Smith, the prophet; and […] the powder horn of Elder David W. Patten.”7 In 1880, the museum’s curator, Joseph L. Barfoot, reported that “the early history of our various settlements, in Kirtland, Nauvoo, [and] Carthage, although imperfectly shown […] has attracted much attention. The likeness of the Prophet Joseph Smith; of Hyrum Smith the Patriarch; the Carthage Pistol, the watch of David W. Patten; […] and many other relics have been looked upon with much interest by thousands of visitors. […] As to the history of progress in Utah, the arts, science, and manufactures, from the first settlement of these valleys, it is seen in the cabinets of the Deseret Museum.”8
During its first 50 years, the Deseret Museum flourished as an educational and professional institution with emphasis on scientific collections (mineral, fossil, zoological, and archaeological). In 1891, James E. Talmage became the director and developed the museum as “a place of study and contemplation”9 connected with the Latter-day Saints’ University, where Talmage was also president.10 At the same time, with help from the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, the museum built up an extensive collection of artifacts pertaining to the history of the Church.11 One of the most significant acquisitions of this nature during this time was the printing press used to produce the first edition of the Book of Mormon.12 When Talmage was released from the directorship in 1918 in order to focus on his duties as an Apostle, a decision was made to divide the collections into two separate museums.13 Most of the scientific collections were transferred to the Latter-day Saints’ University, while the Church history artifacts and some archaeological items were moved to a new building adjoining the Bureau of Information on Temple Square, which opened in 1919 as the LDS Church Museum.
For several years prior to this move, the Church had been developing Temple Square as a destination for presenting its history and beliefs to the public, with missionaries serving as guides.14 From 1919 to 1976 the LDS Church Museum operated under the supervision of the Temple Square Mission and welcomed an increasing number of tourists and local visitors. Its collection continued to expand with cultural objects from around the world that represented the growth of the Church.
In 1973 Florence S. Jacobsen became curator of the museum and also of the Church’s fine arts collection, which was mostly dispersed throughout temples, headquarters buildings, and meetinghouses and in storage.15 Jacobsen was instrumental in developing the art collection and fostered support for construction of a new building in which the collection could be meaningfully displayed to the public.
On August 12, 1980, President Spencer W. Kimball announced plans for a new museum to be built directly west of Temple Square. The building was completed in 1984 and named the Museum of Church History and Art. In a speech given at the dedication services, Ezra Taft Benson said, “This building is dedicated to the conservation and preservation of historical artifacts and art work. As such it constitutes the most valid statement we as a Church can make to this generation and future generations about our Church history and artistic endeavors. This museum will be a place where individuals can be reminded of the past so they may better understand the vision of our forebears, which is the basis of our sacred heritage. […] That is what we hope happens when individuals visit this museum—that they see what their forebears wrought and that this will give a perspective to the present that will inspire them to build a more glorious, a more righteous, future.”16
In 2008 the name of the museum was changed to Church History Museum in order to align more consistently with other entities in the Church History Department, such as the new Church History Library, which was then under construction.
Renovated in 2015, the museum’s current flagship exhibit, The Heavens Are Opened, tells the story of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ through authentic artifacts and immersive, interactive exhibits. As in former times, these exhibits serve an important educational role for both Latter-day Saints and the wider community and world, helping individuals connect in personal and meaningful ways to “the great things of God” manifest in the history of a worldwide faith. Speaking of the new exhibit, Elder Jeffery R. Holland said, “This story is the story of my faith. It isn’t just the story of Joseph Smith, and it isn’t just the story of Brigham Young. It’s my story, and it’s your story, and we hope it will spread and be the story of all mankind.”17