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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Review of the Newly Renovated LDS Church History Museum (the Good, the Bad, the Ugly...and the Inspiring)

This past week I had the opportunity to take my family, while on vacation in Utah, to the newly renovated LDS Church History Museum!  Ever since the proposed renovation in 2014 I have wanted to see what improvements the church would make to its exhibits, and our family vacation provided the perfect excuse.

First off, it is important to understand why the LDS church chose to renovate their history museum to begin with.  To make a very long story short, the motivation behind this renovation came down to two factors: first, the museum was quite old and lacked many of the modern interactive features commonly found in other museums (one of the biggest complaints was that the museum was boring for kids). Second, with the dawn of the Internet Age, new questions regarding church history and doctrine have come under scrutiny.  As Assistant Church Historian Reid Neilson stated:
Every generation asks different questions of our history...We hope to be completely and totally honest about our past, both good and bad...The goal of the Church History Museum is to build the faith of the next generation of Latter-day Saints and to help others outside our faith understand our history.
In short, the goal of this renovation of the Church History Museum is to help the rising generation better engage with the church's history by employing better technology and by addressing some of the most common topics of concern.

So, without further delay, I present to you all my review of the new and improved LDS Church History Museum!  My review will give each individual exhibit an overall grade, after which I will give the museum in general my critique.  I will caution the traditional believing Mormon by stating that some of the issues presented in the museum (and in my review) can be difficult to hear.  I will also caution the skeptic by stating that the church has EVERY RIGHT to put its best foot forward. Yes, historical integrity is important but the church is ultimately a church, not a history class.  The traditional believer may esteem some of my review as being "blasphemous," while the skeptic will see some of it as "propaganda."  Oh well, to each their own I suppose.  Let's get on with the matter at hand...

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THE GOOD

The Book of Mormon Translation Process:
The very first exhibit upon entering the Church History Museum focuses on the translation process of the Book of Mormon.  For many members of the LDS church, this exhibit will present a very different narrative from the one taught in Sunday School and Seminary.  I even had the chance to speak with a church historian who happened to be answering questions at this particular exhibit. She informed me that of all exhibits in the museum, most traditional members found this one to be the most shocking or eye-opening.

And why is that?

Simply put, it is because the traditional LDS explanation for the translation process of the Book of Mormon depicts Joseph Smith, carefully reading over the golden places with the Urim and Thumim, while a scribe listens intently to Smith's dictation.  The scribe would be separated from the places by a sheet of some kind, preventing his/her ability to see the plates for him/herself.  For example (on the left):


From a historical perspective, this depiction is completely inaccurate.  From the records we have (and they are quite clear on the matter), Joseph Smith actually translated the Book of Mormon (at least the majority of it) by placing a seer stone into a hat (the same seer stone he found in 1822 while digging a well for Willard Chase). Smith would sometimes not even reference the golden plates during the translation process (as seen in the pic above on the right).  Below are some pictures I took from the church's new exhibit on the translation process of the Book of Mormon:


According to the church historian present at this exhibit, some of the common questions asked by members are, "If Joseph used a seer stone why then does the church still publish illustrations depicting the translation process as something quite different?"  Skeptics commonly ask questions like, "If prophets and seers need a special stone to receive revelation, then why hasn't any recent prophet used such a stone?"

These questions are certainly fair, but for now I will leave the reader to decide for him/herself the answers. I have my own opinions on the matter but this post isn't the place for that.  I will simply offer my overall grade of this exhibit.

In the end, I believe this exhibit was THE BEST exhibit of the entire museum.  The church has clearly made a serious attempt to address the historical truths regarding Book of Mormon translation. I have little to no critique of this exhibit, and as a result give it a resounding A+.  This exhibit was extremely well done.

The First Vision:
Another issue that is sometimes troubling for members and critics of the church is Joseph Smith's First Vision account.  To make a very long story short, those who find the First Vision troubling will point to the fact that there are nine surviving First Vision accounts, and that each account presents different details that some find contradictory (you can read all nine accounts of the First Vision by clicking here.  You can also read a detailed essay on these accounts that the church has published by clicking here).

The exhibit starts off with a short, seven-minute video that depicts the First Vision in a unique 180 degree surround theater.  I found a YouTube copy of this video that somebody must have taken.  The quality isn't great but you will get the gist of the video presentation:



As you can see, this presentation is somewhat different from the traditionally taught narrative of the First Vision.  As the video states (at the beginning), all nine versions of the story were incorporated to create this depiction of the event.

In reality, everyone should read for themselves all nine accounts of the First Vision in order to better understand the story.  In addition, it is worth noting (because skeptics will point it out) that Joseph Smith claimed to have his First Vision in the spring of 1820.  The first recorded account of the First Vision doesn't appear until 1832.  I will again allow the reader to decide for themselves what this means for the validity of the First Vision story.

As for grading this exhibit, I give it a very solid B+.  The video was certainly the best depiction of the First Vision produced by the church that I have seen.  The church is clearly making strides in terms of its transparency.  They could have given each account of the First Vision somewhere in the exhibit and maybe addressed the issue of waiting twelve years before Smith recorded the event, but in the end I found this exhibit to be quite solid overall.

THE BAD

The Nauvoo Expositor:
Every Mormon knows the story of Joseph Smith being incarcerated at Carthage Jail.  It is the sad location where the Mormon Prophet and his brother, Hyrum, were murdered on June 27, 1844. Surprisingly, however, few know why Joseph was incarcerated to begin with.

Joseph's arrest was primarily the result of his dealings with William Law and the Nauvoo Expositor. The Nauvoo Expositor (the full text of which can be found here) was a local newspaper that essentially exposed some of the ugly practices of the Mormon Saints in Nauvoo.  The primary issue mentioned in the Expositor was the practice of plural marriage (polygamy), which church leaders, to include Joseph Smith, had publicly denied but privately endorsed.  The main author of the Nauvoo Expositor was William Law, the former member of the church's First Presidency, who had fallen out of favor with Joseph Smith.

Below is a video presentation of the Nauvoo Expositor as presented at the Church History Museum:


There are, in my opinion, quite a few problems with this explanation of events.  First off, William Law is made to look like the bad guy who betrayed the church and Joseph Smith.  What the video fails to mention is the fact that William Law had very good reasons for being upset with the church and its prophet.  The biggest issue not mentioned was the allegation that Joseph Smith had propositioned William Law's wife, Jane, to enter into a polyandrous affair with him.  Jane Law later told a friend that, "The Prophet asked her to give him half of her love; she was at liberty to keep the other half for her husband."

You can find more details regarding Jane Law and the allegations of polyandry at the following links:

"Why William and Jane Law Left the Church" by Grant Palmer
"Polygamy Persecution and Power" by Hal Schindler
FAIR Mormon's rebuttal

The other issue in the video deals with the destruction of the printing press itself.  The video suggests that Joseph Smith was "ordered" by the Nauvoo City Council to destroy the press, but there is zero evidence to support such a claim.  In fact, surviving records suggest that it was Joseph Smith himself who issued the order.

In addition, the notion that the Nauvoo City Charter, which granted the authority to suppress anything deemed a nuisance, was sufficient justification to stop the printing of the Expositor is a stretch to say the least.  This is EXTREMELY WEAK justification when juxtaposed with the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.  I don't doubt that the men involved in suppressing the Nauvoo Expositor used this as grounds to justify their actions, but they were still absolutely wrong!  The suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor and the subsequent destruction of the press were both illegal actions. Keep in mind, those who didn't want the Expositor published (namely Smith and his supporters) were upset over the fact that polygamy was going to be exposed to the public. The rumors were finally going to be confirmed by men who had once been on the inside.  The Expositor was only a "nuisance" to those who didn't want the truth to be told. In short, to say that a random city charter granted powers that trump the First Amendment of the Constitution is a tough argument to make.

In addition, if you read the Nauvoo Expositor itself, it is quite evident that William Law & Co. got most of their facts right.  There is very little in the Expositor itself that isn't the truth.

In the end, I have no choice but to give this exhibit very low marks.  I give it a generous D+.  It avoids failing completely because I give the church credit for even mentioning this ugly fact of history.  They could have simply avoided the issue altogether.

The Succession Crisis:
Traditionally, Mormons have been taught that following the death of Joseph Smith several men stood to make their claim as the next in line to lead the church as its prophet.  Eventually Brigham Young emerged as the clear and obvious choice, due in part to a number of miraculous events.  Some who witnessed Brigham Young speak for the first time following Smith's death stated that Brigham's voice and demeanor changed to match that of the Prophet Joseph.  This, and other similar accounts, proved to be the needed evidence to justify Brigham Young as Joseph Smith's rightful successor.  The Church History Museum presents the rise of Brigham Young to power in the following manner:


Though the church does depict correctly the rise of Brigham Young, is also omits a tremendous amount of fascinating history regarding what has become known as the "Mormon Succession Crisis." First, it is important to note that no clear successor to Smith had even been named.  This is why the succession crisis happened in the first place.  Sydney Rigdon, who was initially the "front runner," presented a very convincing claim, due to his position in the First Presidency (the only surviving member left) and his having been Smith's vice-Presidential running mate.  James J. Strang, who is relatively unknown to most Mormons, also presented a case that convinced the likes of Lucy Smith (Joseph's mother), William Smith (Joseph's brother), William McLellin and even Book of Mormon Witness Martin Harris (who would later serve as witness to Strang's alleged golden plate record as well).  In addition, it is important to also note that Joseph Smith had suggested, on two occasion, that his successor would be his heir, Joseph, III, who would eventually lead the Reorganized Church.   

In short, the history of the Mormon Succession Crisis is anything but clean cut.  The Museum obviously presents its case that Brigham Young was the rightful successor and I believe they do an admirable job in that endeavor.  It would have been helpful to mention that the accounts of Brigham Young changing (either in voice or person) into Joseph Smith did not exist until Joseph, III's ascension to the presidency of the Reorganized Church, which could cast doubt on the legitimacy of such claims.  In the end, however, I do believe that this exhibit was...ok.  It certainly could have covered more of the history (entire books have been written on the Mormon Succession Crisis) but as I stated at the beginning of this blog post, the church has every right to put its best foot forward.

Overall, I give this exhibit a very ho-hum C-.  It could have been more detailed.

THE UGLY

The Book of Abraham:
When I heard that the church was renovating its museum and that part of the goal would be to address some of the more controversial issues of its history and theology I was ecstatic!  This was FOR SURE a move in the right direction!  And to the church's credit, they have made so many endeavors to be more transparent.  The museum renovation, the church essays on controversial topics, the Joseph Smith Papers Project, etc., etc., etc.  I truly believe that a new day in transparency is upon us.

One of the most controversial topics for the church (and for me personally) has been the Book of Abraham.  In fact, a recent study (that the church itself later looked to when making changes) concluded that the #1 reason why Mormons today choose to leave the faith has to do with historical issues, and the #1 historical issue is the Book of Abraham.

So what does the Church History Museum have to say about the Book of Abraham???

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NOTHING!!!  Absolutely nothing!  In fact, this was the ONLY reference to the Book of Abraham in the entire museum:


This was quite disappointing for me, but I can also understand why they didn't include it.  To be perfectly frank, there isn't any good rational explanation for it.  I won't dive into the issues surrounding the Book of Abraham here (you can do that on your own) but I will say that the sheer lack of anything on the Book of Abraham was extremely unfortunate.  As a result, I have to give the museum a big fat F- on this one.

Polygamy:
There was, sadly, very little material on what is obviously the most controversial issue Mormons have faced over the history of its existence.  Polygamy is a difficult topic, and I certainly hoped the museum would do its best to address the issue.  Sadly, there was little more than one small kiosk and the following pictures:


I was very happy to see that the museum provided the hand-written dictation of the revelation that eventually became Doctrine and Covenants Section 132.  This is noteworthy because for too long people have suggested that the New and Everlasting Covenant had nothing to do with polygamy.  I believe this clearly shows otherwise.

Unfortunately, there was no mention of how polygamy was taught as an essential component to salvation.  There are an endless number of quotes to support the teaching that polygamy wasn't some side show Mormon issue...it was THE ISSUE!!!  Early church leaders made it abundantly clear that polygamy was part and parcel to salvation.  The fact that the museum presents the story of polygamy as merely an Abrahamic test is unfortunate to say the least.

As a result, I must give this exhibit a very sad F grade.  It just dodged the issue entirely.


THE INSPIRING

The Artwork, the Relics, the kids:
When it comes to inspiring its patrons, I must say that the Church History Museum did a PHENOMENAL job!  Having seen the old museum many times I can confidently say that the new museum is a TREMENDOUS upgrade.  There is so much in this museum that believer and skeptic alike are going to enjoy.

The museum has dedicated an entire floor to new forms of artwork that are on display.  If you are a fan of art (paintings, sculpture, etc.) you WILL NOT be disappointed. The ambiance is similar to any art gallery and the pieces on display, which come from all over the world, are spectacular.

In addition, the new historical relics are amazing to say the least.  Everything from personal items from every single church president to the very clothes Hyrum Smith was wearing when murdered at Carthage (to include bullet holes) are on display.  If you are a history geek like me, I promise that this stuff will take your breath away:


Kids will also be thrilled at this new museum.  There are so many interactive kiosks for them to play with (and touching is HIGHLY encouraged for most of them). There is a "Church History Detectives" game they can play as they explore the museum.  Heck, an entire section is specifically dedicated exclusively to the little guys!

It is for these reasons that I give the Church History Museum a very well deserved A+ when it comes to presentation, artwork, relics and kid friendliness.  They simply went above and beyond and are very deserving of the high marks.

So how would I grade the Church History Museum as a whole?  It's difficult to say.  Overall, my family thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The museum is far more interactive and interesting than before.  There is much more to see and do. The use of technology is outstanding.  The history is catching up but is still lacking in certain specific areas.  In the end, I will say that I do HIGHLY RECOMMEND the Church History Museum to both believer and skeptic. As I stated above, I'm sure the believer will find plenty to rejuvenate/affirm their faith, while the skeptic will see plenty of propaganda.  With that all being said, here are my final overall grades:

General Ambiance: A-
Staff Friendliness: A+
Use of Technology: A+
Kid Friendliness: A
Historical Integrity: C-
Faith Promoting: B
Effort to "Get Things Right": B-

If you get the chance, go check out the new and improved LDS Church History Museum.  It's every bit as worthy of your time as Temple Square.


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