Public history fascinates me. I love visiting and thinking about historic sites and museums, and one of my favorite things about this blog is the opportunity to talk about it. Since I went to some interesting places over the past week, I’ve been itching to do a post about them.
Still, as I said last time, it’s taken me a while to get this stuff down in final form. In many years of visiting, studying, and working at historic sites and museums, this batch has presented a unique challenge.
The thing is, these sites are operated by religious organizations, and they handle the interpretation from their own distinct perspectives. Because of that, analyzing the content of their programs and exhibits is a somewhat delicate undertaking. I want to assess them honestly while taking their unique circumstances into account, and I certainly don’t want to give offense to anybody. I’ve written and re-written this post countless times over the past several days in an attempt to juggle all these concerns. I hope I’ve succeeded.
When I review a museum or historic site here, I usually handle each one individually. This time I’m going to discuss three historic sites in one post. They all deal with the same subject matter, they’re all located near one another (two of them are actually side by side), and they incorporate religion into their interpretation in two different ways that merit comparison.
The first and largest is Historic Nauvoo, a kind of Midwest Williamsburg operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Few places are as important to the history of Mormonism as this town beside the Mississippi River. Following their expulsion from Missouri in 1838, the Mormons purchased land in western Illinois and began construction of a city that grew so fast it rivaled Chicago. Securing a charter that granted them a great deal of latitude in establishing a town government, they also organized their own militia unit, published their own newspapers, and constructed a magnificent temple on a bluff overlooking the city. Historic Nauvoo is a recreation and restoration of parts of the town as it appeared during the Mormons’ residence there.
That residence was brief. Outsiders were suspicious of Joseph Smith’s power (he was not only head of the church but also the town’s mayor and commander of its militia), and they feared the Mormons’ rapid growth, political influence, and economic prosperity. Furthermore, dissenters within the faith criticized Smith’s leadership. In 1844, one of these dissenting factions published a newspaper with allegations about the prophet’s behavior and intentions, promising more revelations in subsequent issues. Smith and the city council ordered the destruction of the press, which led to the prophet’s imprisonment in nearby Carthage. After a mob murdered Smith and his brother in jail, the Mormons hastened to complete the Nauvoo temple, but ultimately abandoned their city when it became apparent that coexisting with the surrounding populace would be impossible. Many migrated to Utah under Brigham Young’s leadership.
Historic Nauvoo’s visitor center has an exhibit on the construction of the town, the everyday life of its inhabitants, and their eventual departure. The galleries also house a few works of religious art, including some pretty impressive paintings and sculptures. Two theaters provide a venue for orientation films.
The rest of the site consists of restored and reconstructed buildings which are open for guided tours: a general store, the newspaper office, Cultural Hall, the tinsmith shop, the homes of prominent Nauvoo citizens such as Brigham Young and Joseph Smith’s mother, and so on.
Nauvoo’s other museum is Joseph Smith Historic Site, with its own visitor center, two homes the prophet and his family inhabited, a reconstruction of his brick store, a boarding house, and his grave. The Community of Christ, a separate Mormon denomination that formed under the leadership of the prophet’s son, manages JSHS. This site and Historic Nauvoo are only about half a mile apart, and you can easily walk back and forth between them. I suspect that many non-Mormon visitors (who comprise about 20% of the traffic) simply assume that it’s all one big operation, rather than two sites run by different churches.
An older view of one of Joseph Smith's Nauvoo homes, from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons
The visitor center at JSHS has an orientation film, too, as well as a small exhibit area. Unlike the LDS facility, it also offers a gift shop with a pretty impressive selection of books, art, and other material.
The third site, Carthage Jail and Visitors’ Center, is located about twenty miles away. Like Historic Nauvoo, it’s run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The main attraction here is the building where Smith, his brother, and two companions were imprisoned after the attack on the newspaper. On June 27, 1844 a mob stormed the building and made its way upstairs to the bedroom where the men were staying. Hyrum Smith, trying to block the intruders from breaking through the door, took a bullet in the face and died; the door is still there, and so is the bullet hole. Joseph Smith, shot multiple times, plummeted through the second-story window and died outside. One of the other men was wounded.
There’s a visitor center here, too, but no exhibits other than a series of paintings. It’s mainly a staging area for the tour and a small orientation theater with a film. In fact, this building reminded me of nothing so much as a funeral home—elegant furnishings, music coming from a piano in the adjacent room, and a somber but friendly gentleman in a dark suit standing near the entrance.
By all the usual standards one would normally use to judge historic sites, all three of these institutions get high marks. The buildings are beautifully restored. The exhibits at Historic Nauvoo’s VC are informative, attractive, and clearly scripted. The guides are very knowledgeable, and everyone is extraordinarily friendly and helpful. These sites compare favorably with any other outdoor history museum, and they definitely merit a couple of days of your time. (I doubt you could see everything in a single day unless you rushed it; I spent a full day and another morning at Nauvoo and then part of an afternoon at Carthage.)
Under normal circumstances, that would be that. But, of course, these aren’t exactly normal circumstances, because there’s a sense in which these are sacred sites, and the tours, exhibits, programs, and films are all church operations. The question is whether or not that makes any difference.
Well, that’s a complicated matter, and it’s the reason I’ve had so much trouble figuring out how to review my visit. The short answer is that JSHS is a pretty straightforward affair, but at the two LDS sites, you’re going to get more than a little religion mixed in with your historical tourism.
I had actually assumed it would be the other way around, since the prophet himself is buried on the grounds of JSHS. (His final resting place is surprisingly humble, by the way, and is actually his third grave, since his wife had him interred two times secretly before his remains were moved for the last time.) But for the most part, it was your standard historic site tour, and a superb one at that. The only nod to religion was a segment at the end of the orientation film which gave a brief overview of the Community of Christ’s ministries.
At Historic Nauvoo and Carthage Jail, religion is more front-and-center, and sometimes historical interpretation gives way to apologetics. Sometimes it was a case of things left unsaid. Conspicuously absent from the exhibit and the films, for example, was any mention of why Smith ended up imprisoned at Carthage to begin with, or any substantial discussion of the dissension within the community that plagued the prophet and the other leaders. I’m not saying that the site is duty-bound to pore over every unsavory incident that happened during the town’s history, but I do find it unfortunate that Smith’s death is stripped of any immediate context. This makes his murder and the eventual collapse of Mormon Nauvoo harder to understand—and enabling visitors to understand is what museums and historic sites are supposed to do.
That’s not to say that the exhibits are just a whitewash job, or that they aren’t informative. That’s not the case. The display at Nauvoo’s VC does lay out a basic history of the town and its inhabitants. Nevertheless, there are some parts of the story that are missing.
Much less objective is one of the films shown at Historic Nauvoo’s VC, a sixty-eight-minute biopic called “Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration.” The church produced this movie for the bicentennial of Smith’s birth, and it plays at different Mormon sites across the country. It’s a work of religious devotion through and through, and if you’ve got a problem with that sort of thing, then by all means skip it. Personally, while I wouldn’t endorse the film as the best source of information about Smith, its reverent tone neither surprised nor offended me. (Look, if you go to a church facility and watch a movie about that religion’s founder, and then you’re offended because it’s not a warts-and-all portrayal, then maybe you should’ve stayed home, pal.)
Furthermore, I was neither surprised nor offended to see LDS literature available in the visitor centers at Historic Nauvoo and Carthage’s jail. They are, after all, the church’s sites, and it’s both natural and perfectly proper that they should have this information available for those who are interested.
What did surprise me was the extent to which the guides would weave religious outreach into their building tours. The interpreters at Historic Nauvoo and Carthage are, in fact, missionaries, who come from Mormon congregations all over the country to work for eighteen-month postings. Every single one of them was incredibly polite, warm, and knowledgeable, without any exceptions whatsoever. (I’d also add that the other visitors were noticeably friendlier than the tourists you run into at most other places.) I’ve never felt so welcome at a site or museum, although they were much more interested in my religious affiliation than interpreters at, say, Old Salem or Plimoth Plantation.
My most notable encounter happened at Nauvoo’s newspaper office, where the guide was a bright, attractive, and knowledgeable young lady in period dress. After demonstrating the operation of a nineteenth-century printing press, she noted the importance of being able to read the truth, stated repeatedly that she believed the Book of Mormon to be true, and then (with an earnestness that I’m not accustomed to receiving from attractive young women, whether at historic sites or in any other circumstances) asked me if I would read it. A little taken aback at the way this tour had turned out, and always a sucker for a pretty face in 1800’s clothing, I told her that I would.
That was only the second building I’d visited that day, so I wondered if that sort of thing was going to be the norm. It wasn’t. I visited most of the other buildings with groups or families, and in those cases the guides would usually just end with some anecdote or quote from the person who lived or worked there, with a brief admonition to emulate their faithfulness.
A couple of days after visiting Nauvoo I drove up to Carthage to see the jail. Stepping into the visitor center, I met the guide, who was the kind, older gentleman in a suit I mentioned earlier. While I was waiting for the next tour to start, I picked up a copy of the Book of Mormon sitting on a table and thumbed through it.
“Are you a member of our faith?” he asked me.
I shook my head. “No.”
“Do you have a copy of the Book of Mormon?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
He smiled. “You can keep that one, if you like.”
Thinking it would be rude to turn him down, I thanked him and took it with me. I had, after all, promised the girl at the newspaper office that I’d read it, so I was kind of obligated.
I found out that this gentleman had worked at Nauvoo for a while, but this was only the second time he’d been assigned to give tours of the Carthage jail. His talk was extremely informative and well-prepared, as if he’d been working there every day for years.
Hyrum Smith died while trying to keep the mob from breaking through this door. The bullet hole is visible in this photo from Wikimedia Commons.
When we entered the second-story bedroom where the mob broke in on the Smith brothers and their companions, the other visitors and I sat on benches while he related how it happened. It was, understandably, a difficult story for him to tell. “Excuse me,” he said at one point, “I get a little emotional here.” As I sat there looking at the bullet hole punched clean through the door, I figured that if I were in his shoes I’d probably be a little emotional myself.
I hope I’m not giving you the impression that if you visit these sites you’re going to get hit with an endless barrage of proselytizing. That wasn’t the case. Anyway, I don’t get offended when people share their faith with me. I’ve got religious beliefs, too, and my opinion is that sharing something so personal with a total stranger takes guts and not a little love for your fellow human beings.
What I found odd wasn’t what they were doing, but the setting in which it took place. There’s just no smooth way to transition from historical instruction to missionary outreach within the brief amount of time allotted to a building tour at a large site like this. It’s unavoidably jarring, like one of the don’t-play-with-matches PSA’s awkwardly tacked onto the end of the cartoons I used to watch as a kid. The approach at the Joseph Smith Historic Site’s VC is much more sensible and, I think, effective. Let the orientation film briefly let visitors know who you are and what you believe, and then let the history do the talking.
That history speaks eloquently enough on its own. The early period of Mormonism is one of the great American stories. It’s an unfortunate paradox that this religion, born so recently and on our own soil, should be one of the nation’s least understood faiths. These sites can remove some of the mystery by providing the historical context that’s so necessary to understanding any part of the human experience. I would recommend that the managers of these sites be less concerned about making openings to share their faith. The history is so compelling, the personnel so warm and engaging, that many visitors will probably open up on their own. “This is the most beautiful place and the best people under the heavens,” Smith supposedly said as he rode out of Nauvoo for the last time on his way to prison and martyrdom, and anybody visiting today would be hard pressed to disagree.