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Last 2 Years Have Been ‘Unprecedented,’ ‘Crazy’ and ‘Inspiring’ at Church Historic Sites

Sister Caelie Noall and Sister Isabella Rich show virtual visitors some of the artifacts found in the Mormon Battalion Historic Site. Because of COVID-19, Church historic sites have been closed to in-person visitors since March 2020. Photo courtesy of the Mormon Battalion Historic Site, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

 
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By Rachel Sterzer Gibson, Church News

 
“Unprecedented” is a term many, including President Russell M. Nelson, have used to describe the time since the spread of the coronavirus began to disrupt the normal operations of businesses, organizations, schools, churches and individuals.

That word certainly applies to the past two years at the Church’s historic sites. Leaders at the Church History Department expected 2020 to be one of the busiest years ever at many of the Church historic sites, with Latter-day Saints celebrating the bicentennial of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s First Vision.

Instead, in March 2020, the Church announced that, as a precaution to the COVID-19 pandemic, Church history sites were closing — something that has never happened before.

When Gary Boatright, who has worked with the Church’s historic sites for roughly 15 years, thinks over the last 20-plus months of the pandemic, the first word that comes to his mind is “crazy.”

“It just really has been a crazy, crazy year,” Boatright recently told the Church News.

Soon after the sites closed, many senior missionary couples, who make up much of the support staff at the sites but were most at-risk to the virus, were sent home. Young international sister missionaries were reassigned to their home countries. At the same time, the sites also had an influx of young sister missionaries, and both site directors and Church History Department leaders wondered “How are we going to keep them busy?”

Fortunately, site leaders and missionaries innovated and responded by offering virtual tours of these sacred spaces. Soon, most of the historic sites were offering live video tours to individuals from Utah to Alaska to France to Suriname to the Philippines. And that was just 2020.

Sister Robison and Sister Taylor, missionaries serving at the Nauvoo Historic Sites, give a virtual tour in front of the Nauvoo Illinois Temple. Because of COVID-19, Church historic sites closed for in-person visitors in March 2020. They have since reopened. Photo courtesy of the Nauvoo Historic Sites, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

 
“We didn’t know what to expect in 2021,” Boatright said.

In the last year, the sites began to reopen to in-person visitors again, but with COVID-19 precautions in place. The Church also announced extensive plans to rehabilitate the Hill Cumorah historic site, and in May a new historic area of Old Nauvoo — the Nauvoo Temple District — was dedicated. All the while, the sites have continued to offer virtual tours to individuals around the globe who would never have been able travel there.

Hindsight is always 20/20, Boatright noted, but in looking back on all the “craziness” and struggles, especially of those early months of 2020, “it’s clear that the Lord’s hand was guiding everything the entire way.”

As the operations manager for the historic sites, Boatright has had a front row seat to the uncertainty and challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic but also to the miracles, resilience and innovations that have emerged as a result — which is why the second word that comes to his mind to describe the last two years is “inspiring.”

“It just truly has been a blessing to look back and see the hand of the Lord in it,” Boatright said.

Sister Sarah Sun shows authentic clothing while Sister Pamela Wach records her during a virtual tour of the Mormon Battalion Historic Site. Because of COVID-19, Church historic sites closed for in-person visitors in March 2020. They have since reopened. Photo courtesy of the Mormon Battalion Historic Site, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

 
Lessons Learned

Looking back, one of the big lessons of the pandemic was the power of virtual tours, Boatright said.

This last year the sites saw an equal number of in-person and virtual visitors. “This year and last year really was the first time that the Church was able to take historic sites to the global Church. And the feedback that we’ve been getting has just been phenomenal.”

Boatright has received emails and comments from Church members from all over the world who are so grateful to be able to experience these places. “The First Vision and the Sacred Grove is a significant and sacred site to every member of the Church around the world, whether you’re a third-generation Latter-day Saint in Utah or a first-generation Latter-day Saint in West Africa.”

A family walks near the Joseph Smith Family Farm at the Sacred Grove historic site in Palmyra, New York.© 2022 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

 
Another takeaway from the pandemic, Boatright continued, is the need to be flexible. “We learned that we really need to be nimble when it comes to what we[‘re] doing at the historic sites.”

A good example of that is the inception of the virtual tours. When the pandemic first hit, the Church History Department had already been experimenting with virtual tours. Normally, implementation for something like that would require approvals and discussions and committees, which take time.

Instead, the pandemic acted like a kick-starter. Site leaders experimented and figured things out quickly, and they went from testing to reality within a matter of days.

In the last year, as the sites have been reopening to in-person visitors, they had to juggle differing local restrictions and COVID-19 requirements and fluctuating staffing and visitor numbers.

“We’ve learned we can do things differently than we have before,” Boatright said.

Going Forward

Earlier this year, Benjamin Pykles, Church historic sites curator, noted in a Church News article that they still have a lot of work to do in continuing to reach their global audience. A prerecorded tour might have a role to play for areas of the world that do not share the same waking hours as the historic sites, which are located throughout the United States. Right now the sites also have limitations on the languages in which they can offer a live tour, and specific sites, like the Cove Fort historic site, still struggle with connection issues.

“We’re just scratching the surface, and we’re excited to keep working towards those goals,” Pykles said.

Sister Olivia Graysen (left) and Sister Marissa Bischoff present a tour inside the historical Joseph and Emma Smith home at the Priesthood Restoration Site in Oakland Township (Susquehanna County), Pennsylvania, on Sunday, August 29, 2021, during Elder Neil L. Andersen and Sister Kathy Andersen’s visit. © 2022 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

As more individuals prepare to visit many of these places in the coming year, Boatright hopes they will continue to be patient and understanding as each site tries to manage fluctuating local COVID-19 guidelines and, in some cases, being short-staffed.

In looking forward and discussing what he hopes for visitors, both in person and virtually, Boatright shared a lesson he recently learned from David L. Frischknecht, director of temporal affairs for the Church’s historic sites. The historic sites, he said, “were sacred then and they are sacred now.”

Boatright explained: “These places were made sacred by the faith and dedication of the early Saints and also the miraculous events that occurred in these places. They are made sacred now by a number of things: by the sacrifice and dedication of the missionaries, who are called to serve in these places; … by the lives that are changed; by the members of the Church who go there and their faith and testimony is strengthened; by those of other faiths who come and learn more about the history, and walk away with a feeling and an understanding that what they just visited is a holy and a sacred place.”

The Church history sites are to be experienced, not just seen and checked off a list, Boatright said.

If visitors will take the time to connect and really experience these sacred spaces, either in person or virtually, “their lives will change,” Boatright promised. “They will walk away with a closer relationship with their Heavenly Father. They will walk away with better understanding of the history of the Church. They’ll really just walk away with a more firm testimony of the Restoration of the gospel.”

Copyright 2021 Deseret News Publishing Company

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