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.