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LDS Church History Museum to close for yearlong renovation, new emphasis

SALT LAKE CITY — For a quarter century, the Church History Museum across the street from historic Temple Square has told the story of the LDS Church though an exhibit called "A Covenant Restored."

In 12 days, that exhibit will be history, after drawing about 7 million visitors.

Not only will the exhibit close, but the museum will shut down for a year-long renovation on Oct. 6, one day after the conclusion of the church's semi-annual general conference, then re-open with an important new film, a major new exhibit and a new floor plan on the ground level.

The new exhibit, "The Heavens Are Opened," will focus on the years 1820-46 and continue the church's efforts to provide more, and more transparent, information about the faith's origins.

The museum is expected to re-open prior to general conference in 2015, said Elder Steven R. Snow, historian and recorder for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and executive director of the Church History Department.

For the past year, the church has been releasing new, scholarly essays on pieces of its history in the Gospel Topics section of Two of those essays — First Vision accounts and Book of Mormon translation — will have companion exhibits at the museum when it re-opens.

The museum's senior curator, Kurt Graham, said the museum and the Church History Department have made what he called "a very, very concerted effort" shepherded by Elder Snow to create consistency between the history found in the Joseph Smith Papers Project and the Gospel Topics pages and what is shared at the museum and the church's historic sites.

"We want members of the church and people outside of the church who are looking for information to get a very consistent message," Graham said. "We don't want them to hear one thing in the museum and then something else on the church's internet site and something else at a historic site and something else in the Smith papers. It's all one message. We want to coordinate that so that the real, latest scholarship we're aware of is available in all of these venues, in all of these channels, for the public."

The new first-floor exhibit will have eight sections that significantly upgrade the use of media and technology in the museum, including the First Vision Theater where visitors will see a new movie, now in production, depicting Joseph Smith's descriptions of his 1820 vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ.

"I think the church has entered an era of increased transparency when it comes to how it deals with its past," Graham said. "We have multiple accounts of the First Vision that both Joseph and others around him recorded at different times. We will be sharing all of those versions."

The renovation is a massive project.

It began in August, when staffers moved 4,250 items over four days. In October, they will de-install all but one exhibit so construction can begin.

That will include moving 1,200 exhibit items that will stay in the building and 6,300 items that will go into long-term storage before the end of November, according to the museum's website.

The entire staff will be retained. Staffers will stay busy during construction developing new education materials, public programming and web features.

Many of what a press release called "historical favorites" will be retained in the new exhibit, including the death masks of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, who were martyred in 1844.

"The death masks are among the most important artifacts," Graham said.

Photography was new and expensive. No photos of the Smiths exist.

"These are signficant for Latter-day Saints because the eyes behind these masks saw the Lord," Graham said.

The new exhibit also will continue to display the pocket watch, damaged by a bullet during the martyrdom of the Smiths, of John Taylor, the faith's third president, and the original Grandin printing press used to publish the Book of Mormon.

The eight sections of the new exhibit will include information about religious awakenings in the United States in the early 1800s, religious awakenings in the Smith family, the First Vision Theater, information about the church's early history in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois.

The new exhibit will add replicas of the Whitmer cabin where the church was officially established in 1830 and Liberty Jail, where Joseph Smith was incarcerated in 1838-39.

One section of the exhibit will be about the translation methods of the Book of Mormon, with a scribe table experience about the translation process.

"We want to uncover, unveil that process," Graham said. "We want to invite people in the experience an opportunity to see what it was like to write out a passage as it was spoken.

"People need to remember the Book of Mormon didn't spring into life as a printed document. It was written out by pen and ink, by hand, one line at a time. Every word was spoken and written. It's important for people to realize it was a real process that was undertaken to do that."

Graham said "The Heavens Are Opened" exhibit will given insight into other aspects of the first quarter century of LDS history.

"We'll be dealing, for example, with the idea of polygamy in Nauvoo," he said. "There are other topics that maybe in the past have not been dealt with, not been discussed. Now to have those things discussed is very important. I think people will understand we really are trying to come to grips with how the church became what it has become.

"There were human beings who were going through all kinds of interesting trials and interesting opportunities, and they lived through their era with a kind of grace and poise that surfaces in the true narrative. The point of that is we hope that people today look at their membership in the church in the same way and say, you know, what is incumbent upon us in terms of graciousness and poise in how we move forward."

Elder Snow said the museum has housed 108 total exhibits in its 30 years.

"We're confident the renovations and the new exhibit will be very popular," he said, because of the new technology to be used, the theme of the exhibit and the artifacts that will be on display.