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Twila Van Leer: The LDS Museum of Church History and Art has roots as the Salt Lake Museum and Menagerie

I learned something new last week. The word "museum" comes from the legacy of the Greek Muses. According to Greek mythology, the nine muses were the goddesses who were charged with the inspiration for and the guardianship of the arts: Calliope (epic poetry); Clio (history); Euterpe (lyric poetry); Thalia (comedy and pastoral poetry); Melpomene (tragedy); Terpsichore (dance); Erato (love poetry); Polyhymnia (sacred poetry — hence hymn); and Urania (astronomy).

So, you add to "muse" the Greek suffix "eum" which means a repository, and there you have it. Museum. I hope I learn another something new this week.

And all that is just a way to start a conversation about the Church History Museum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. More correctly, it's the Museum of Church History and Art and it's at 45 N. West Temple Street, just across the mid-block west exit from Temple Square. It's open from Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free for anyone who wants to take a short journey into the past. More than 100,000 items related to the past are either on display or in the museum's off-site storage. (See for information on current exhibits.)

It's possible one of those items relates to your own family, if you are descended from Utah pioneers. Even if you aren't, the collections have been expanded to include artifacts of all kinds from many places.

Recently, members of our family were granted the privilege of seeing a clarinet that belonged to our ancestor Martin Horton Peck, who played the instrument in the Nauvoo Brass Band in the 1800s. It was an emotional connection to something concrete from the life of this wonderful pioneer that we were only acquainted with through words. The museum keeps careful records and you can access them to learn if artifacts from your own family history might be among its collections.

The interesting thing about the museum is that it has a fascinating history of its own. The drive to preserve things from the past began when Utah was still a territory (1850-96), according to materials shared with me by the museum.

The idea of a museum went back into the very early history of the church, when displays of Egyptian artifacts were shown in Kirtland. In 1849, Eli Kelsey wrote in his journal that "Elder Philo Dibble has been appointed and ordained to gather together the relics of the beloved prophet and patriarch (Joseph and Hyrum Smith) and to portray their martrydom upon canvas and also to gather together curiosities from all parts of the world and establish a museum in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake."

He noted that elders Orson Pratt and Levi Richards had been named to a committee to bring the museum into being.

But it was a busy few time for the pioneering Saints, who were trying to set down roots within and beyond the boundaries of Utah Territory. The museum would have to wait.

The embryonic stages of a museum were established in December 1869 by John W. Young, who was only 25 when he set up The Salt Lake Museum and Menagerie between the old Tithing Office and the Lion House. His goal was to show the visitors being brought to the territory by the railroad "what we have and what we are doing in the Utah Territory." The railroad linking east and west had become active with the joining of rail lines from both directions on May 10, 1869.

In 1871, Young's building was preempted to become the home of the Deseret Telegraph Co. and the museum moved to a two-story building outside the south gate of Temple Square. The menagerie was eliminated. That's too bad, because, according to a "Handbook Guide to the Salt Lake Museum," printed in March 1880, the menagerie had included, in its No. 3 cabinet, "the curious mountain alligator," among other Utah reptiles and insects. You could get in to see these wonders by paying 25 cents at the door, plus 10 cents for each child you had in tow.

The No. 6 cabinet was dedicated to relics from Kirtland, Nauvoo and Carthage, including likenesses of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and "representative men of Utah." Photos and engravings of the Kirtland, Nauvoo and St. George temples were displayed, along with representations of "the beautiful Temple now building in Salt Lake City" (dedicated in April 1893).

After this site also was sold, the museum moved to the Templeton Building. James E. Talmage, noted church historian and author, became director and curator. It was a statement by him that educated me: "The word 'museum' means a home or temple of the Muses, hence a place for study and contemplation."

With the museum being bounced from one location to another and from the governance of one group to another, it was clearly time to start talking about a permanent home. For part of the 1970s, the collection was put into storage. Some items were shared with Brigham Young University, the University of Utah and the Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum.

Then Florence S. Jacobsen was appointed curator of the "homeless" collection and things began to happen. She was one of the 20th century's human dynamos who worked tirelessly until she got things done. Responding to the urging from Sister Jacobsen and many others, President Spencer W. Kimball announced in August 1980 that a new building to house the church history and arts collections would be built on the block across from the west exit from Temple Square. Church architect Emil Fetzer designed the building and it was dedicated in 1984.

In 2014, the museum underwent extensive renovation, with a reopening ceremony on Sept. 29, 2015.

The exhibits attract hundreds of thousands of visitors, both faithful Latter-day Saints who want to know more about their heritage and non-LDS visitors who want to better understand the church and its fascinating past.

(And don't forget that if you still have a yen for history after visiting the Church History Museum, there is more on display at the Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum only bocks away at the head of Main Street. Perhaps it is there that you will find a special connection to your past. Either way, let's give thanks for those who plan, execute and manage museums.)