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‘The Heavens Are Opened': A guide to the new Church History Museum exhibit

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Have you ever tried to imagine what it was like in the Sacred Grove on the day Joseph Smith went there to pray? Or how difficult it was for Oliver Cowdery and other scribes to legibly write each word as the Prophet Joseph Smith translated and dictated the text for the Book of Mormon?

Perhaps you'd like to get a sense of the prophet's life in Liberty Jail, read firsthand accounts from those who lived the principle of plural marriage, or see other authentic artifacts from early LDS Church history.

Such opportunities are included in "The Heavens Are Opened," The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' new Church History Museum exhibit.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles cut the ribbon in the new exhibit Sept. 29, officially reopening the museum following a one-year renovation.

"A sense of honor and respect for the past, a respect for history, is essential to any truly civilized society, and as such it has always been an important part of the church,” Elder Holland said at the ribbon-cutting. "This marvelous, refurbished museum of church history now stands and shines."

"Presented with passionate scholarship," the new exhibit uses artifacts, artwork and multimedia features to educate and bring visitors face-to-face with people, events and objects from early church history because "nothing compares to seeing something with your own eyes," Elder Holland said.

The new exhibit was designed to provide something for everyone. Telling the church's story with accuracy and transparency was a high priority for organizers. "The Heavens Are Opened" comes with various stories and details along with its displays.

Appealing to all

Plans for the redesign started as early as March 2011, according to Maryanne Stewart Andrus, the exhibitions manager of the LDS Church History Department.

Organizers wanted to display compelling artifacts while telling the early Saints' powerful stories of faith and sacrifice. They hope to see young people interacting with adults as families walk through the exhibit, Andrus said.

"It's not a history book that is going to bore people; it's visually rich, and there is a lot to take in," Andrus said. "We want to spark conversations between parents and children. We want them to have a human experience … to visualize and feel the impact of history."

The signature piece of the new exhibit is what Elder Holland described as "a moving account of Joseph Smith’s First Vision of the Father and the Son, portrayed in a special (circular) theater created for just that purpose, with sight and sound enveloping the visitor, as if we, too, had been in the Sacred Grove that day." The film draws from several accounts and weaves them into one narrative.

The exhibit starts with upstate New York and the church's humble beginnings in 1820 and continues through key events in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois, ending in 1846. There are displays on the translation work of the Book of Mormon, the early missions of the apostles, the Kirtland Temple (including one of the original windows of the temple that Brigham Young helped to craft), the Missouri persecutions, Joseph's experience in Liberty Jail, the establishment of the Relief Society, the Red Brick Store, the construction of the Nauvoo Temple and the martyrdom of the Prophet and his brother, among others.

Each display features a variety of artifacts, letters and documents as well as some interactive kiosks or videos.

The exhibit is conducive to a spiritual experience, Elder Holland said.

"I hope they take away a solid spirit of the Latter-day Saint past, those who went before us and built what we now enjoy around us," he said. "I hope they take away a personal spirit that God loves them, that he really does speak from the heavens. The heavens are opened. They were open to Joseph Smith, and they are open to us."


Among the displays in the Nauvoo section is one titled "A Test of Faith: The Saints and Plural Marriage." This item features firsthand journal accounts from several women and men who were asked to live the principle of plural marriage for a time. (The practice was discontinued in 1890.) This display illustrates the museum's effort to be open and accurate when telling its story.

"The museum is an ongoing statement about our history," Elder Holland said. "We will tell it as openly and honestly as we know how to tell it."

This openness is part of a continuing effort to give correct and reliable information for those interested in the church's past, said Richard E. Turley Jr., assistant LDS Church historian and recorder.

"In a world where people sometimes feel bewildered by an abundance of information, the museum provides patrons with easy-to-understand visuals and texts that describe the early history of the LDS Church, including some of its most inspiring moments and most challenging subjects," Turley said.

Drawing upon all the accounts of the First Vision and showcasing images of the seer stone are other examples of transparency in the exhibit, said Alan Johnson, the museum's director.

"We are taking people right to the source material, such as the multiple accounts of the First Vision. We have copies of those in the gallery space if people want to see the actual documents," Johnson said. "We encourage that."

Interesting facts

Planning, designing and creating the new exhibit didn't happen overnight. Here are some facts about "The Heavens Are Opened," as reported by museum officials.

• Nearly 1,000 items were removed from the previous exhibit. The new exhibit contains 223 artifacts, 34 documents, 30 pieces of art and 34 artifact replicas.

• About 350 LED track heads are used to light the entire exhibit.

• Approximately 1,500 hours went into reproducing a quilt from the Peter Whitmer family. The reproduction has been valued at about $20,000, according to the museum officials.

• More than 3,000 pounds of specialty concrete was used to make the floor of the Liberty Jail.

• A cloak once belonging to Joseph Smith is featured with a collection of artifacts from the Nauvoo Legion. It took more than 260 hours, not including the design phase, to create a special, long-term mount for the cloak in order to avoid potential damage.

• The Nauvoo sunstone, estimated to weigh about 3,300 pounds, required 11 workers and more than three hours for it to be moved into its place in the museum.

'Tell Me the Stories of Jesus'

In addition to "The Heavens Are Opened," the LDS Church History Department will debut the 10th International Art Exhibit, “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus,” at the Church History Museum on Thursday, Oct. 22.

This year's theme was chosen in cooperation with the 2015 Sunday School curriculum. The exhibit will feature the artwork of Latter-day Saints from countries around the world, including the Philippines, Argentina, Japan, Taiwan and others. The artists submitted pieces depicting various scenes from the Savior's life.

The purpose of the International Art Competition is to showcase the diversity of Mormon artwork.

An awards ceremony will be held on Oct. 22 in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square from 6-7 p.m. The event will be followed by an open reception in the Church History Museum from 7-9 p.m. Admission to each event is free. For more information about the exhibit, visit history.lds.org/museum.

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