A Stranger in my Own Country at Two Mormon Sites

Day 93

After visiting the Museum of Russian Icons earlier this month, a museum of religious art that is decidedly non-evangelical, I added “visit a museum with an explicitly religious bent” to my list of things to try for this blog, and I knew that my trip to Utah would be a perfect opportunity. On Saturday, I visited Temple Square, the area around the large Church of the Latter-Day Saints temple in Salt Lake City. In particular, I wanted to visit the Church History Museum and write about it, but I walked into a visitor center thinking it was the history museum at first, and the two turned out to make an interesting contrast.

My goals for my own museum visits, or for other people’s visits to museums where I work, are not the same as the LDS Church’s goals for visitors to their museums and visitor centers. They want to spread the teachings of their faith and convert people. There are valid arguments to be made about whether and/or how religious evangelism is ethical in general, but in the case of religious sites open to tourists, I think the main ethical consideration is that visitors know whether they might be proselytized to, and visitors to Temple Square certainly know what they are getting into. I want to be up front about the fact that this post is about my own goals for museum visits, so while it’s a critique of these sites, it’s not necessarily criticism.

A white marble statue of Jesus Christ with open arms. A mural of stars and clouds is in the background. The tops of kids' heads peek into the bottom of the picture, they come up to his knees.
Statue of Christ with a mural in the background

The visitor center included a number of things I loved, and a number of things that either gave me pause or made me wonder. It had better seating than almost any museum I have ever been to -- numerous armchairs and couches, positioned so sitters could see the art and talk to one another at the same time. I get the feeling they are there so that missionaries can sit down with visitors, but the couches made it feel like a relaxed space. The hallways were wide and roomy, which meant that the couches didn't make it feel cramped, and people using strollers and wheelchairs also looked comfortable. The exhibits followed a circular design that made it basically impossible to get lost or to miss anything you didn’t want to miss.

The visitor center was full of Bible stories interpreted in paintings and dioramas. The paintings had their artist's name, but no dates, which bothered me a little because there were simple questions that dates could have answered. Was this lily-White depiction of ancient Israelites I was looking at from 2016, or 1816? My partner noticed that we kept seeing a "Whiter than usual White Jesus," and with the exception of a few characters who looked sort of Hollywood Egyptian, all of the depictions were white. By contrast, the missionaries at the visitor center were from diverse backgrounds and wearing flags denoting languages they speak. It called to mind both the discussions I have heard about race and religion, and discussions about whether museum visitors need to feel represented in the art that they see. 

A spacious hallway with a number of nearly floor-to-ceiling paintings depicting Biblical scenes, each in a simple wood frame and lit with a set of spotlights.
At the North Visitor Center. Image from lds.org

Unlike many grand halls full of art, this place had lots of families with children. I overheard some parents seizing teachable moments, talking about their religious beliefs (Mormon, from the little that I heard). I wonder what this place is like for non-Mormon families with children – is it comfortable as a place to learn about other people’s beliefs and culture, or uncomfortable as a place trying to persuade and convert? What is it like for people who are observant members of similar-but-different Protestant denominations – do they appreciate it for the similar teachings and the eleven-foot-tall statue of Christ, or does it come across as a sacrilegious variation on their faith?

In the illustration, a White man sits reading in a primitive cabin. Next to the image is an exhibit case containing a small, rustic footstool.
An illustration and artifact, a footstool belonging to Joseph Smith's mother.

In contrast to the Visitor Center, the Church History Museum has narrower hallways and fewer convenient seating options. It also provided more historical context for the stories it was telling; these were the stories of their religious movement starting around 1800. The objects and art had dates on them, and the exhibits included lots of artifacts of daily life. The humble chipped bowls and worn farming tools belonging to their prophet Joseph Smith's family and followers, some of which had been recovered on archeological digs, showed their owners as people. At the same time, I felt like we were supposed to be excited about these objects simply because of who they belonged to, because the interpretive text said very little about their use. In some areas, though, the interpretation was spot-on. There was a great section on the process of printing and distributing the early editions of the Book of Mormon, complete with hands-on activities. In one corner, a portable writing desk that belonged to Smith's brother was displayed containing a replica of the golden tablets he is said to have received. The label included a note that conservators had added a padded false bottom to the inside of the desk. Looking closely, I saw that section was clearly not historical. I appreciated that this conservation measure was noted, rather than swept under the rug.

A wooden chest with what could be pages in a pocket-sized loose-leaf binder, except the pages are golden plates.
The writing desk with a false bottom and replica gold tablets. Image from history.lds.org

All of the events the museum text described were presented as fact. It didn’t matter whether they were sacred, such as the Angel Moroni visiting Joseph Smith, or worldly, such as the Native Americans welcoming the Book of Mormon as the history of their ancestors. I was expecting this, and although I knew I wouldn’t agree with all of the narrative that the museum presented, I didn’t think it would bother me very much. As I said above, tourists there know what we’re getting into. At one point, though, in an exhibit about Smith’s translating tablets he received from Heaven into the Book of Mormon, the wording made me briefly think the text was implying there was room for other points of view. I was surprised at how excited I was about this. As I read on, I realized that they were not suggesting differing interpretations but relating different ways that early followers came to be converted. I was surprised again, at my disappointment. The one section that was actually on differing points of view presented Mormon and non-Mormon beliefs in a fairly matter-of-fact way. It was nice to see, although it was in the context of discussing persecution of Mormons in the mid-nineteenth century, and made no mention of anyone's present-day beliefs. Even the words in the museum written by visitors only presented one point of view. There was a response bulletin board with small pieces of paper, pencils, and the question, "What does the book of Mormon mean to you?" It had absolutely no neutral comments; it was immediately apparent that only true believers' opinions were welcome on the bulletin board. 

A sign that says "Points of Conflict in Illinois" and several turning blocks with text on each side. The text has headings such as "economics" and "plural marriage."
The exhibit about varying viewpoints

After the main exhibit on the founding and early years of the church, I skimmed a hall of the church presidents, which was so patriotic and full of Anglo-American men it could have been a hall of historical United States presidents. Then, I came to a large exhibit of spiritual art. Ordinarily, I’d be interested to spend some time in an exhibit like that, but that day, I felt like I couldn’t. I just felt exhausted and overwhelmed. Several exhibits included loud video and audio of people giving testimony about their faith, so there was nowhere to stop and rest. All of the museum staff were on-duty missionaries, so I didn't want to talk to anyone and get trapped in a long conversation. Earlier I said I don’t intend to criticize, only to critique, and as I’m describing my negative, emotional reaction I can’t help but sound critical. I am fully aware that people seeking a religious encounter at these sites, or open to a conversion experience, might love the visitor center’s and museum’s power to overwhelm. It would be a positive thing for them. 

A piece of art that may be block printed. It includes biblical text in the form of a sheep, standing on a bed of hay.
"Lamb of God" by Melissa Clark, on display at the Church History Museum. Image from history.lds.org

My fatigue wasn’t just because the views presented were different from mine. This museum absolutely disregarded my experience, and in some ways my existence. Certainly they knew that many visitors are not members of the faith, and they aim to convert us, but nothing in the exhibits suggested that they knew we were people and not information receptacles. Was that a representative experience, for other types of museum? I am wondering whether it feels that way for a racial minority to go to an American history museum that focuses entirely on White people, for example. I have been to culturally-specific museums for cultures and ethnicities other than my own, certainly, but even in those, the historical presence of White people is clear, so I haven't had that experience of exclusion. I've felt disregarded by museums that have made strange implications about queer people being a modern invention (people who fall into that umbrella category, not the label itself), but I've never been to one that was specifically about relationships or social structures in society, so I didn't spend the entire visit feeling ignored. So, did I just get my first true taste of how draining it is for a museum to ignore me? Or, is the experience different at an evangelical museum, because unlike most museums, they are actually after my soul?

Update on March 19: I'm submitting this review to Museum Hack's writing contest. Museum Hack is a company that has built its brand on shaking up museums.