Creating Historic Sites

By January 22, 2010

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.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks, Emily! A fascinating peek into the meta-world of curation. Reminds me of Kathleen Flake’s article on “Re-placing Memory” in Religion and American Culture, which looks at the Church’s simultaneous attempts to memorialize Joseph Smith’s birth and to recast itself in the Smoot hearings.

    Comment by Ryan T — January 22, 2010 @ 3:05 pm

  2. Emily,
    Very true. As you well know, Gadfield is as much (maybe more) an artefact of late 20th century British Mormonism as it is a monument to the United Brethren. The “world’s oldest LDS chapel” may be incorrect but it speaks volumes.

    Comment by Ronan — January 22, 2010 @ 3:05 pm

  3. Thanks for the reflective post, Emily.

    As one who revisits restorations of days gone by, do you ever sneak certain things into your personal collection? How awesome would it be to have an anamatronic Joseph in your closet?

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 22, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

  4. Wouldn’t that be highly unethical???

    Comment by JJ54 — January 22, 2010 @ 4:51 pm

  5. Just kidding, JJ54. Just kidding.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 22, 2010 @ 7:03 pm

  6. Great post, Emily. The last sentence resonates especially 🙂

    Comment by Jared T — January 22, 2010 @ 7:23 pm

  7. Thanks, Emily. As I read your interesting insights, I thought of a classic symbol of these phenomena exhibited elsewhere, in film-making: that heavy, heavy lipstick on actresses in Westerns of the 1940s!

    Comment by Rick Grunder — January 22, 2010 @ 11:53 pm

  8. Great post. Ditto Jared on the last sentence.

    How awesome would it be to have an anamatronic Joseph in your closet?

    See also: terrifying for the unsuspecting niece/nephew/child that stumbles on it.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — January 22, 2010 @ 11:56 pm

  9. Rick, I’ve never made that connection, but you may be right. A study of our cultural desires as manifested in all types of media could be very interesting.

    Wanting but not being able to have a mannequin may be why I collect Mormon kitsch. If you can’t have a life size Joseph Smith or Alexander McRae in your office, you might as well as have a Liberty Jail Christmas tree ornament.

    Comment by Emily — January 24, 2010 @ 12:13 am


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