A couple of months ago I heard a presentation on the general topic of historical sites that the Church owns and manages. I came with a pocketful of snarky questions but left with some appreciation for how tough the task is and (on the whole) how well the sites are set up and managed. I’ll give a couple of paragraphs summarizing the talk, then a couple of paragraphs commenting on historical sites I have visited.
Development and Management
The LDS historical sites under discussion here exclude Temple Square and Nauvoo, which are so large they are administered through their own administrative divisions. LDS.org has a nice map showing all the sites, including overseas sites. Institutionally, there are three departments responsible for the sites: (1) the Historic Sites Committee selects the sites to be developed, manages the restoration of the site, and writes the historical “curriculum” for the site; (2) once the site is open to the public, the Missionary Department manages it and staffs the site with guides; and (3) Physical Facilities maintains the physical side of the site and its operation. Each site has a Site Director who runs the site and reports directly to the Missionary Department in SLC. The missionaries assigned to the site, however, still report to the Mission President for that area.
That sounds like a real organizational mess, doesn’t it? Surprisingly, it seems to work fairly well. Yes, it would be nice if historians ran the sites and gave tours, but there aren’t many historians looking for work as tour guides, while there are 60,000+ missionaries with time on their hands (and they work for free). More to the point, the substantial financial commitment of the Church to purchase, restore, staff, and manage these sites can only be justified if it furthers the mission of the Church. LDS leaders won’t spend millions of tithing bucks to subsidize the equivalent of a county historical museum; they will spend millions of tithing bucks to preserve sites, landmarks, and monuments that witness or testify to the truths of the Restoration.
The Historic Sites Committee actually has a mission statement to guide its work: remember there are many more potential sites than there are resources to develop them. They are to (1) identify locations of historical significance, (2) preserve the actual historical settings of key events of the Restoration, and (3) witness to the truths of the Restoration and create informative and/or spiritually moving experiences for those who visit. Historic Sites selects and provides the historical context; the missionaries staff the sites and bear witness as opportunity presents; and Physical Facilities fixes the things the missionaries break. Something like that.
My notes have lots of details on specific sites that were discussed, but I’d rather just note a site or two I have visited personally over the years and invite readers to make comments on other sites they are familiar with. About twenty years ago, I was touring Old Town in San Diego while on vacation with the family and wandered into the Mormon Battalion Historic Site. I remember nothing about the exhibits or short film we saw, but I remember it was a pleasantly cool building with lots of nice benches on a blistering hot day in San Diego. This illustrates why Physical Facilities is a key player in this game: they don’t skimp on air conditioning and they build outstanding parking lots that are actually large enough to meet the demand. I suggest these are two signs of the True Church (at least in California).
A couple of years ago I toured the Cove Fort Historic Site. It is about a mile down the road from the Cove Fort Chevron station, which may be the most strategically placed gas station in the world, about 100 feet off the I-15 freeway smack in the middle of Nowhere, like an oasis in the desert. Which explains Cove Fort, about a mile down the country road from the Chevron station. The fort was a rest and resupply station for 19th-century Mormon travelers headed to or from Southern Utah. It was also an actual fort. To protect travelers from all those friendly Native Americans.
We took the tour. I thought the missionary guides (a senior couple) were a little preachy, given they knew we were LDS. That was one of the snarky comments I had lined up but didn’t use. They’re missionaries, so I guess it’s their job to be a little preachy. I thought the rooms were rather cozy and the furniture ample and functional. Let’s just say it was better than some student housing I’ve lived in. And they didn’t have to pay three bucks a gallon to water their horses. Maybe the pioneers didn’t have it so bad.
The bottom line is that the Church devotes substantial resources to identifying, developing, staffing, and maintaining these sites, but the results are fairly impressive. We’re spoiled in that Mormonism has lots of historical sites worth preserving, but they don’t preserve themselves — it takes resources and organizational effort to make it happen.