Church Historic Sites

By January 14, 2010

Have you ever lingered in the Sacred Grove? Paused to read the inscription on a headstone at the Winter Quarters Cemetery? Wondered aloud how the pioneers fit in those little benches at the Salt Lake Tabernacle? Glanced at the historic marker at Benbow farm? If the answer is yes, you have interacted with a church historic site.

For the sake of all of you who might not know exactly what a church historic site is, I thought I would start with a brief definition of the program. Church historic sites include restored structures and interpretive centers (think Historic Kirtland and the Mormon Trail Center), historic landmarks (think tabernacles and temples), historic cemeteries (think Winter Quarters and Mt. Pisgah), and historic markers on church property or using the Church?s name (way too many of these to mention and the list is constantly growing). Many people know about or have visited a church site but few probably stop to think about the work that goes into their visit. Because of the complexity of these sites, those who work with them have to juggle a lot of things. The LDS Church historic sites program is managed with input from several church departments. This collaborative process adds a lot to the sites, and even if it takes a little more time, the end product is usually much better.

Historians who work with historic sites don?t just research Mormon history, they research everything else. Let me give you an example. Joseph Smith ? History, verse 48 says ??I started with the intention of going to the house; but, in attempting to cross the fence out of the field where we were, my strength entirely failed me?.? Most Latter-day Saint scholars will talk about this verse and its evidence of the close relationships between members of the Smith family or the impact of visitation by heavenly beings, or something else academic that I haven?t thought of. Those of us who research historic sites will study all of that but then come back to this verse for something entirely different. I will focus on house, field, fence, and ground. I?ll research what the Smith?s were doing in that field and the typical crops grown in that region, in that type of soil, and at that time of year. I?ll research fences, asking what type of fence Joseph was climbing over, what it was made of, who built the fence, and what the fence was keeping out or in. I?ll research what field the Smith?s were likely in, how far it was to the house, and what other obstacles were in Joseph?s way on his journey. And then I?ll go to Palmyra and walk around the fields looking for evidence of historical fencing and farming techniques. And, then after all of that archival and field work, I?ll write a two page explanation for the missionaries serving at the site.

Historic sites research is one part history, one part material culture, one part preservation, one part interpretive studies, and about a million parts of other things. The whole process takes a lot time and there are usually few concrete answers. I have to dig deeper into sources and look broader and take absolutely nothing for granted. At the end of the day, sites research doesn?t result in a book. It results in a chair or a script or a paint color or a trail through the woods.

The historic sites program of the Church is probably more active today than in any time in recent memory. There is a lot going on. If you visited a site as a kid and haven?t been back since, I would recommend a return trip. Some of them have changed drastically and others are current projects, meaning change is coming in the next couple years.

The work done in historic sites is guided by three basic principles:

Accuracy ? Simply put, the spirit can not testify to that which is not true. Since most people who come to a church site do so for some kind of testimony enriching experience, the spirit should be there. This truth isn?t found in just in what is said, but in the setting. I can tell you from personal experience how immensely difficult it is to write about a room in a 19th century home that didn?t exist until 1960. The accuracy of a site is constantly changing as we learn more about the history of a particular site or life in that time period or region in general.

Relevancy ? Because historic sites folks spend so much time researching so many things in extreme detail, there is plenty to talk about. Unfortunately, you can?t share all of that information in a 30-45 minute tour. This 30-45 minute tour length is not imposed by the Church. Research into visitors at museums and historic sites around the country has shown that most people do well in 45 minute increments. A really engaging subject and guide may hold attention for an hour. In addition, most people can retain three to five big ideas on a tour or in an exhibit. More than that and the brain turns off. So, stories told at historic sites are carefully chosen for their ability to convey the most important ideas in a relatively short amount of time. Also, we can?t save everything or tell every story. Preservation is an expensive business and we have to choose carefully what to save and how to save it.

Appropriateness ? Just because you can tell a story doesn?t mean that it is appropriate for every audience. The technology exists to recreate the 1st Vision every hour in the Sacred Grove. But you?ll never see it. The setting and the story would have less of an impact if visitors were greeted by a video projector mounted in a tree. I am also constantly reminded in this line of work that the people I?m researching were living, breathing people. Being in their homes and handling things they owned or wrote makes them more real. The more I learn about them, the more respect I try to show their lives and experiences.

All of this amazing complexity is what makes work in church historic sites so much fun and so challenging. Historic sites work means hours pouring over documents in archives but it also means crawling around basements and going through antique stores and learning how to build a chimney using 1830s techniques. Most people will never see the written result of all that research but they will see the buildings created from the research.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks for the insights, Emily. “This truth isn?t found just in what is said, but in the setting.” That’s a great line that branches off in several directions.

    Related post you might enjoy: LDS Historical Sites.

    Comment by Dave — January 14, 2010 @ 10:55 am

  2. Emily, this is great! I appreciate your vivid description of the work that goes into the creation, preservation, and interpretation of each site. Understanding the basic principles that guide historic sites work is helpful for me also, and your personal experience makes me value these places even more.

    Comment by Elizabeth — January 14, 2010 @ 11:30 am

  3. As someone who plans vacations around Church historic sites, I want thank you and those who put so much time and effort into developing and maintaining these sites. I am struck by your statement that the spirit cannot testify to that which is not true. I am going to have to think about the ramifications of that.

    Comment by Sanford — January 14, 2010 @ 11:42 am

  4. Great overview, Emily. Is there “correlation” of historic sites and how does that interact with your three emphases.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 14, 2010 @ 11:55 am

  5. I love Church historic sites. When I was 7 my family moved from Colorado to Illinois, and every summer on our way to Utah for vacation we would spend a couple of days in Nauvoo and Carthage. (Once when I was like 9 we even got a personal tour of Nauvoo from T. Edgar Lyon, as my dad had been a student of his).

    Here’s a Church Historic Sites question about the Smith log cabin in New York that I blogged about and didn’t get much response to. I’d be interested if Emily or others had a point of view on that question.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — January 14, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

  6. Emily,This is a great post. The Church is lucky to have you. (you also are lucky to have this job)!

    Comment by Bob — January 14, 2010 @ 12:22 pm

  7. Kevin, I will not take a stand on ‘Smith’s two cabin”. but will add it was not unusual to have two cabins. One for winter: small, tight, heatable. One for the rest of the year: larger, airy, not having a heating issue.

    Comment by Bob — January 14, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

  8. Emily, great post, I think there’s a lot to think about here. I know that statement about the Spirit testifying to truth is in the Site Guides, and I find the ramifications really interesting. Maybe you’ll have further thoughts on that at a future time.

    #4-J. That’s a great question. I just talked with Emily at the library and she’ll have some thoughts on that.

    Comment by Jared T — January 14, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

  9. Thanks for the insights.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — January 14, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

  10. Thanks for the comments everyone!

    #3, 8 – something else to ponder about the statement “the spirit can’t testify to that which is not true.” There is a difference between an emotional response and a spiritual response. An emotional response will make you laugh, cry, yell, etc. A spiritual response will change your life in some way. They are two different, but not always mutually exclusive things.

    #4 – what exactly do you mean by “correlated?” The connections between the different sites or the correlation committee or something else entirely? I want to be clear of the question before giving an answer.

    Comment by Emily — January 14, 2010 @ 2:24 pm

  11. Emily (#10),

    It’s J.

    He’s talking about Correlation (big “C”). It’s another one of his sneaky attempts to get some subversive information from a semi-official source.

    /hides from J.
    /hides from E.

    Comment by Alex — January 14, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

  12. On a more serious note, can you describe in a little more detail the relationship between the Missionary Department, Physical Facilities, and Church History in regards to site maintenance and preservation?

    Comment by Alex — January 14, 2010 @ 2:44 pm

  13. Admin, please edit the last word of #12 to read “presentation” rather than “preservation”–or just leave this note. Thanks. 🙂

    Comment by Alex — January 14, 2010 @ 3:02 pm

  14. That got a bona fide chuckle, Alex. Though you are correct that I was asking about big C Correlation. Your question is equally interesting to me.

    I seem to remember a story about Ed Kimball and the “Cultural Hall” in Nauvoo, but the details are hazy now, and I might just be miss-remembering.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 14, 2010 @ 3:02 pm

  15. Thanks for this, Emily. I enjoyed it.

    Comment by Hunter — January 14, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

  16. I know some people who offered to arrange for some period Masonic furniture from other Illinois lodges for the upper room of the Cultural Hall, but the powers that be were not interested. I assume that is some sort of Correlated response, not wanting to portray the masonic use of that space.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — January 14, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

  17. Excellent, Emily; many people (including myself) forget how much work goes into these historic sites, and we often take it for granted.

    And if anyone wonders how seriously Emily takes this job, you should have seen her fuming after she came back from the Visitors’ Center in Independence, MO. 🙂

    Comment by Ben — January 14, 2010 @ 4:47 pm

  18. Haha, or hear the stories of woe out of the St. George Tabernacle 🙂

    Comment by Jared T — January 14, 2010 @ 4:57 pm

  19. #4, 12, 16 – your comments are all related and I’m planning a post dealing with them all. But, I will say this for now – in my experience, correlation is not the over protective mother running around whacking people on the nose with the rolled up newspaper of truth.

    #5, 7 – Palmyra is not my current area of focus, but I’ll take a look at it and ask around and see if I can add any perspective.

    Comment by Emily — January 14, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

  20. Great thoughts, Emily. In recent study in book history I’ve come to better appreciate the significance of material culture. Book history typically proceeds outward from a text to recreate its native world. But you must recreate that world literally! I look forward to the rest of your posts.

    Comment by Ryan T. — January 15, 2010 @ 1:57 am

  21. How does one get a job with the Church’s History Department? What type of education is needed? What kind of positions are there with the Church? (Most specifically the the historic sites program)

    Comment by Jake — January 15, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

  22. Jake: this would be a good start.

    Comment by Ben — January 15, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

  23. After several visits to the Carthage Jail over the years, I came away each time without the testimony that you speak of. This was specifically related to the manner and content of the presentations, not to ignorance on my part, since I had carefully researched the terrible events that occurred there. Your point in this article was proven to me beyond questioning when, two years ago, I met there a retired teacher from Rigby, Idaho, whom I had known when I worked as an assistant superintendent in that district, who made a presentation that was so humble, so immediate and so true to the record that the Spirit bore strong witness to the events and confirmed the testimony I had gained through study and research. I still get chills when I remember the devotion and understanding he brought to his historical presentation and the witness of the Spirit that came to me.

    Comment by Blaue Blume — January 15, 2010 @ 6:00 pm


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