A colleague of mine is fond of saying that historic markers say more about the people doing the marking than the people or events being marked. That statement holds true for historic sites. The structures and landscapes we choose to preserve, restore, rehabilitate, conserve, and maintain retain stories and significance long past the structures primary period of significance. The Sacred Grove is significant primarily for a single event on an early spring day in 1820 but the way that grove has been used and preserved in the intervening decades reveals information about the Smith family, 19th century farming techniques, and the differing philosophies guiding preservation in the LDS Church, just to name a few.
Every one of us involved with historic structures has left a thumbprint on the building. I can look at a series of photographs of different church owned historic sites and without knowing dates can tell you who was involved in its restoration and furnishing. The same mindset that brought us Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin inside a Greek temple also brought us Liberty Jail inside a rotunda. Reactions to a radically changing world after World War Two brought us mannequins and highly Victorian interiors at the Joseph Smith Farm. Current focus on edutainment is altering the face of historic sites. Every curator has had a distinct style and approach to the sites under their care. Even if they never articulate their underlying purpose, you can see it in the work they do. Every historic site restoration project is embedded in several layers that go far beyond deciding how many chairs and tables to put in a room. The purpose for the restoration, potential controversies associated with the site, the personal tastes of the person doing the restoring, the academic background and training of the restoration team, and general trends shaping restoration in the United States all play a part in site restorations. And then there are the sources to contend with – sources that are often vague or contradictory.
The same idea extends to every museum exhibit and historic site in the country. Every exhibit contains hints about the people who created it. Every historic house provides information about the last time it was restored or renovated. Visit a museum with a museum professional and you’ll enjoy the exhibit, but you’ll also spend the next hour analyzing how the information was presented, how artifacts were used, and the preservation or exhibition techniques involved. Give two historic site curators the exact same sources and budget and you’ll get two very different furnishing plans in return.
So what does this have to do with my work in church historic sites? At times, when looking at previous scholars work in historic sites, I am tempted to roll my eyes at the silly things they did. I find myself asking “why didn’t they use this source?” or “why did they let in this artifact that is so obviously from the incorrect time period?” When those ideas start, I have to stop myself and take a step back. When I understand the context of the restorer’s time and their role at the time of restoration, most of their decisions make complete sense. I probably would have done the same thing if presented with the same options 20 years ago. And, since I’m now involved with these sites and leaving my thumbprints everywhere, I’m hoping for the same forbearance for future site historians. All I can do is my best and leave enough of a paper trail behind that whoever comes after can make sense of the mess I made.