Anyone who has attempted to take young children to a museum will likely agree that it can be an exhaustive undertaking. Thankfully, interactive displays that don’t require kids to keep their hands to themselves are growing in popularity.
“A Book of Mormon Fiesta: A Latin American Celebration,” a new exhibit at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City, follows this trend with hands-on features created with children in mind.
It opened January 2011 and is scheduled to end in January 2013.
“In this exhibit, we are celebrating the Book of Mormon and the truth that we learn from it in the setting of a Latin American fiesta,” said Angela Ames, assistant curator of education at the museum, which is operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It’s also a chance for kids to learn about church history without feeling like they’re at church. At the exhibit, youngsters are encouraged to test, touch and feel.
The approach clearly resonates with visitors — the museum has had a steady flow of guests eager to play and learn in the new exhibit, organizers say.
“The exhibit has been very popular,” said Ray Halls, education program manager. “It’s a natural draw for families who want to come down and enjoy Temple Square and learn about the gospel.”
Exhibit designers chose to focus the exhibit on Latin American experiences as part of a recent focus on the international history of the LDS Church, Ames says.
“Latin America and really Mexico is where the church started to blossom and grow outside of Western culture,” Ames said.
Everything at the exhibit is presented in English and Spanish. Most of the artwork on display is either centered on a Book of Mormon theme or was created by a Latin American member of the church.
“The design of the exhibit is all Latin-based,” Halls said.
The exhibit is divided into three interactive sections: “Learn Truths,” “Share Truths” and “Live Truths.”
The first section of the exhibit, “Learn Truths,” depicts stories of ancient prophets found in the Book of Mormon. For instance, designers had a local cabinet shop craft a small replica of the ship Nephi built to sail to the Promised Land, as described in the Book of Mormon. Kids can use a fishing pole to catch magnetic fish and pretend they were on the ship, too, says Craig Rohde, exhibit designer.
There are large foam blocks for pint-sized visitors to rebuild buildings destroyed before Christ visited the Americas. Another area, that Rohde calls Mormon’s Place of Records, has three interactive touch screens loaded with Book of Mormon-related games, puzzles and the like. Kids can also try their hand at replicating characters from the Brass Plates described in the Book of Mormon.
“One of the things we did in this exhibit, that we haven’t done in the past, is try to create more of an environment,” Ames says, “so kids feel like they’re really stepping into Nephi’s ship and stepping into the Book of Mormon and into the lives of these Book of Mormon characters.”
In the second section, “Share Truths,” visitors enter a model of a Latin American home. A picture of two missionaries sitting at a table hangs on the wall in the kitchen. Kids can use the play kitchen to prepare the elders a meal, and plant and sow vegetables in a nearby garden.
Although the activities and props in the exhibit have lots of play value, they also relate to anecdotes from the lives of faithful Latin American members. Signs on the walls remind visitors of those meaningful connections, Halls says.
One example of this is the chicken coop found in “Share Truths.” A nearby plaque tells the story of Lincoln Peters, a bishop in Chile, who was approached by a hungry family. Peters decided to give the family a chicken from his farm and asked his children to pick it out. When they picked the ugliest one in the coop, he told his children: “When we help a poor person, it’s like helping Jesus, and would you give that hen to him if he were starving?” The children then picked out the most beautiful hen to give away.
“Live Truths,” the third section, is set in a Latin American plaza during a fiesta, a nod to the vitality and celebratory spirit of that culture.
“Every Latin community has its downtown area, its central plaza,” Halls said. “Here, you learn about people who have first-hand experiences with doing good things in life. There are lots of interactive play stations for the kids. We root those experiences in the teachings of the Book of Mormon.”
One wall is filled with windows, like those found in an apartment building, but each window is actually a TV screen that tells a story of a Latin American Latter-day Saint. Buttons made to look like doorbells start the videos in English or Spanish.
Nearby, traditional Latin American instruments are on display. A mixing board lets kids turn specific instruments up or down as they create their own versions of Primary songs performed by the group Los Hermanos de los Andes.
One of the most popular stations in the entire exhibit teaches steps to Latin American dances using large widescreen televisions set vertically. One TV shows a woman dancing, the other screen, a man. A large mirror is set at an angle across from the screens.
“You can dance, looking into a mirror, with them and learn the steps to two Hispanic dances,” Rohde said. “We have full mariachi costumes for kids to wear. There are big skirts with loads of cloth for girls and vests for boys to wear. We haven’t done anything like that before, and it’s probably the most groundbreaking thing in the exhibit.”
Family-friendly exhibits like “A Book of Mormon Fiesta” aren’t a new concept at the museum. In fact, there have been four major children’s exhibits prior to this one, and there is always some type of children’s display at the museum.
However, Rohde says what sets the most recent exhibit apart is its use of numerous audio-visual elements.
“It was a good way to explain the things that we wanted to and make them interesting,” Rohde said. “It was a great leap for us and a really good experience in what we are capable of.”
Already, exhibit designers are using the lessons they learned in the three years it took to create “A Book of Mormon Fiesta” to make other displays at the museum more interactive, Ames said. For instance, an upcoming show on quilts will include a large wall filled with magnets shaped like quilt blocks that guests can piece together. In the same exhibit, kids can use oversized lacing cards and yarn to simulate the experience of stitching a quilt.
“In the future, our goal is to incorporate these hands-on elements throughout the museum in exhibits that aren’t specific to children so we can really pull families together in the gallery,” Ames said.
Something for all
Although “A Book of Mormon Fiesta” has many activities focused on children, teenagers and adults should find something to occupy them, too, Rohde said.
“With this exhibit we really tried to hit a lot of ages,” he said “We have a lot of original art, that we have gotten from our competition, in the exhibit, where not only children but adults can appreciate it.”
Because the exhibit includes so many elements that cater to the hands-on way kids seem to learn best, parents don’t need to worry about doing in-depth preparation before visiting.
“I think that I would just tell them that they’re going to come and learn a little more about the Book of Mormon,” Halls said. “We want to help children learn that the Book of Mormon is a body of scripture that we go to, to learn how to live our lives in an everyday pattern consistent with the gospel.”