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Interactive Mormon genealogy exhibit plays to cultural stereotypes, critics argue

First Published      Last Updated May 26 2017 09:22 am


LDS exhibit » App mixes users’ photos with others’ cultural clothing, skin colors.

An interactive computer app meant to raise cultural awareness and help visitors discover their roots at the LDS Family History Library is drawing fire from some critics as being culturally insensitive.

Here's how it works: Upon arriving at the new "Discovery Experiences" exhibit at the library in downtown Salt Lake City, patrons can check out a tablet, input their LDS account number and dock it into one of the stations. That pulls up the users' family histories. If they want, they then can take photos of themselves and superimpose them on figures dressed in native clothes from various cultures.

That may mean putting white faces on black and brown bodies, some of whom are wearing attire that would be considered sacred by various societies: a bare-chested Samoan or an American Indian in a feathered, fringed shirt. Guests can also insert their faces onto the body of, say, a Chickasaw princess, a Roman gladiator, a mariachi musician or a British man decked out in a top hat and tails.




Each page is accompanied by facts and information about that country and culture. The Samoan entry, for example, includes the statement that in that Pacific nation, "obesity is considered a status symbol."

Irene Caso, a spokeswoman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says the new discovery exercise, part of a 10,139-square-foot attraction unveiled in February at the library, 36 N. West Temple, is proving "popular" with patrons.

It is intended to provide participants with "memorable, fun connections to their ancestors," Caso says, "... a celebration of our patrons' cultures and heritage. The universal message of the church is one of unity and love."

The display is proving educational as well as entertaining.

"I have actually learned that part of my family is from Ireland and United Kingdom, and Sweden," 17-year-old Jonathan Fletcher says in an LDS Church news release at the time of the launch. "And 1 percent basically in Canada, which I really never knew before, and it's really cool."

This particular interactive app, though, has some members hot. They argue that it promotes stereotypes and otherness while, in some cases, offending guests.

"It's the equivalent of a non-Mormon wearing the temple garments just for fun," says Kalani Tonga, a Latter-day Saint in Texas. "It's only 'fun' to the outsider looking in and dressing up. It's not fun to see others try on the special and sacred things about your culture."

Why was the "obesity" statement "the most profound takeaway they could come up with from such a beautiful culture?" Tonga wonders. "I think it's because, through a white lens, it's bizarre/disturbing/hilarious since obesity is not a desirable trait in mainstream America."

That feels "like mockery," she says, "not interest."

For Azul Uribe, a bicultural Mormon writer living in Mexico, the discovery app makes her feel "disposable."

"These communities are facing very real marginalization and violence placed upon their bodies through international policy by the church and currently the United States," Uribe says. "To see these very real bodies be put on and taken off ends up desecrating them in a very real way."

Most Mormons know that "blackface is wrong," she says, "but so is brown face and yellow face, and this digital skinning is part of that."

It points to the "lack of diversity in places of [LDS] power because this idea did not come from the ether," Uribe writes in an email. "It went through several layers of approval, and it didn't occur to a single person to say, 'Maybe this is not the best idea' because no one who might be negatively impacted was in proximity to provide insight."

It is a "shame," she says, but even worse, it's "an insidious way in which the violence of ignorance displays itself."

Utah writer and editor Emily Jensen applauds many parts of the exhibit for informing librarygoers about "cultures and ancestors."

But, she says, "we should not be teaching our young men and young women to feel comfortable being costumed in other cultures. This does not teach them appreciation. It teaches them appropriation. If we let them laugh at the differentness of other cultures, which is what happens too often, then we send missionaries out to other countries prepared in the worst of ways."

There's an easy fix, she argues. "Just take out the picture part of it."

Let participants learn about cultures — without obvious stereotypes, she suggests. "And with facts, not faces."

pstack@sltrib.com

Twitter: @religiongal

 

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