Sometimes I get bogged down in the details of my job and forget just how much I enjoy what I do. I’ve developed a list to remind myself why I got into this field just in case the tedium of it starts getting to me. Some of these are kind of silly, but others can have a profound impact.
- Old stuff. This is probably a prerequisite for anyone getting involved in history. There is something about the past that intrigues me. Put a stack of 1910 magazines in front of me and I’ll be entertained for hours. Let me walk along Hadrian’s Wall and I may pass out from the excitement of the place.
- Fieldtrips. The kind of Mormon history I do for a living requires me to visit the places of Mormonism. I get to wander through fields looking at archaeological remains and crawl around basements of historic structures. Word to the wise: try not to be in the bell tower of the St. George, Utah tabernacle on the hour. That bell is loud.
- The power of place. No photograph, movie, or topographic map can substitute for standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Much of Mormon history can be tied to specific locations. While I can sit at my desk for hours researching the details of history, it changes when I go to the place. My understanding of the Mormon trek to Utah changed one day while walking next to trail ruts on a lonely hill in Wyoming. My personal connection to Church history powerfully shifted one night while sitting on the front steps of the John Johnson home.
- The transformative power of the Mormon past. Understanding any part of the past can change how we view our present. But for me, one of the most powerful stories of the past is found in the emergence of the Mormon identity. The work I do allows me to take the incredible work done by Mormon scholars and translate it into something easily understood and applied by members of the Church. When our history becomes understandable, it becomes personal.
- Access to really cool stuff. Since starting church employment, I’ve personally held the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon, the original Book of Commandments and Revelations, an 1841 British Edition of the Book of Mormon, Gladys Knight’s Grammy Award, Ezra Taft Benson’s Book of Mormon, canes made out of Joseph Smith’s coffin, 1960s Mormon board games, resin grapes, Jacob Hamblin’s saddle, and the list goes on and on. And what other job in the world allows you to have a debate over how President Hinckley tied his neckties? That kind of detail is very important when you are putting his suit on exhibit.
- Access to very knowledgeable people. If you have a question about early Salt Lake City, Mormon/Indian relations in early Utah, Brigham Young’s favorite foods, Joseph Smith’s legal abilities, the history of quill pens, how to paint pine to look like marble, or how to preserve Grandma’s wedding dress there is someone in the Church History Department who can answer. If you need to identify an image of an unlabeled Mormon building, the age and type of a piece of furniture, a seemingly indistinguishable hunk of metal, or the age of a photograph based on clothing styles, there is someone in the Church History Department who can answer. If you want to discuss the importance of photography in the historical experience, interpretative techniques in historic structures, methods to keep people from touching stuff at museums, the balance between preservation and access, the role of Zion in the Mormon experience, the power of myth in Mormon memory, or even just brainstorm important themes from the Nauvoo period, just come to lunch. Something is bound to come up. Or we’ll talk about books and good movies. The breadth and professionalism of my colleagues is amazing and it is a true joy to work with them.
- Correlation. Everything I produce goes through the correlation process. In my experience, I’ve come to see correlation as a really good editor. It has stopped me from printing some odd things and allowed me to rewrite good ideas so they actually say what I think they say. Yes, it can be a slow process, but the end product is so much better. Every historic site has some controversy associated with it. What correlation asks me to do is deal with those controversies fairly and to be absolutely impeccable in my wording and sources. The stories that actually matter get through the process. I’ve dealt with apostasy of early church members, polygamy, the Dixie Wine Mission, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre and several other issues in correlation approved, missionary used historic site guides. The process is difficult but I’m personally glad it is there.
- Work that has an impact. There is immense satisfaction in seeing a completed exhibit that you helped create. It becomes even more satisfying when someone says “I learned something today.”
What is on your list? Why do you do Mormon history?