After several years in the making, the Purpose of Life mural exhibit on the first floor of the BYU-Idaho Center is now completed.
This new, permanent exhibit showcases the original Purpose of Life mural that was painted for and displayed at the 1964-1965 New York World Fair, as well as the Japanese Purpose of Life mural that was painted for and displayed at the 1970 Osaka Japan World Expo.
These twin pieces symbolize a time in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ history that was a turning point in how media was used to share Church doctrines.
The murals are on display with historical documents and records for visitors to learn more about this unique piece of Church history and doctrine.
In 1964, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints built the “Mormon Pavilion,” as it was known then, for the New York World Fair. Approximately 5.8 million visitors from around the world were led through the pavilion by young missionaries. Guests were taught about Jesus Christ and His Gospel, prophets, and the Restoration. They were then led into a room where they could watch the short film, “Man’s Search for Happiness.” Immediately following the film, they were led past the Purpose of Life mural and exited the pavilion.
Kyoung DaBell, curator at the BYU-Idaho Jacob Spori Art Gallery and project manager of the Purpose of Life project, said that the New York World Fair and the “Mormon Pavilion” came at a time when the Church was widely regarded as a “Utah church.”
“The displays at the Mormon Pavilion really made an impact on how people perceived the Church, and it led to a lot of growth for the Church,” DaBell said.
The church built a second pavilion at the 1970 Osaka Japan World Expo. Similar to the setup of the New York Mormon Pavilion, the Osaka Mormon Pavilion taught visitors about Jesus Christ, the Restoration of the Gospel, and Heavenly Father’s Plan of Happiness for His children. As guests left the pavilion, they were brought past the Japanese Purpose of Life mural that now hangs in the BYU-Idaho Center. Over 6.5 million people visited the Pavilion in the one season the Expo ran.
“In 143 years, the Church had barely gained two million members. That was in 1963,” DaBell said, “The Church had three million members by 1971, only one year after the Osaka Japan Expo, and eight years after the New York World Fair. I think that much of that growth can be attributed to these expositions and the Church’s participation in them.”
DaBell said that the Church learned a lot from the success of the two “Mormon Pavilions.” Missionary work changed to include more visual aids. Temple visitor’s centers and the use of media were utilized more to share church doctrines and beliefs.
“These iconic pieces of art signify a change in modern church history in a big way, and they are finally gathered in one place here on our campus,” DaBell said.
The acquisition of the original Purpose of Life Mural about five years ago started a major research project for DaBell.
BYU-Idaho president Henry J. Eyring, who served as a young missionary in Japan, approached DaBell in 2018 and asked if she was familiar with the Japanese version of the mural. He expressed an interest in finding the mural. After the World Expo in Osaka, Japan, the Japanese mural had changed hands a few times and had ultimately been lost.
DaBell began researching and trying to track down the 20-foot-long mural. After months of research and many tender mercies, she found the mural. In 2004, Guy and Alice Suchomel, who were serving as missionaries in Hawaii, saved the mural from destruction when the Laie Temple Visitor’s Center, where the mural was housed since the World Expo, underwent a remodel. The couple kept the mural rolled up in the attic of their home in California for over a decade. DaBell was able to get in contact with the Suchomels in 2019, after which they soon donated the mural to BYU-Idaho. Since the mural had been kept rolled up for so many years, it needed many hours of conservation work to restore the painting to its former glory.
With such a rich history behind these two murals, DaBell and others felt that a display explaining some of the history would be greatly beneficial to students and community members. However, gathering the history of these two pavilions was easier said than done. The “Mormon Pavilion” at the New York World Fair was well-documented since it was the first time the Church had done anything of the kind. On the other hand, the Church did not have anything publicly available in its archives about the “Mormon Pavilion” at the Osaka Japan World Expo.
DaBell said that she felt like Heavenly Father must have really wanted the murals and their history to be remembered at BYU-Idaho, because miracles continued to happen in her search for information about the “Mormon Pavilion” in Japan.
“There have been countless miracles throughout this process. It is a testament to me that Heavenly Father wants all of this artwork and history to be together on this campus at this time,” DaBell said.
A click on a random YouTube video and a coincidental mutual friend opened the floodgates of information for DaBell. She was able to get in contact with former missionary Tom Sherry and others who had served as full-time missionaries at the Osaka World Expo. Sherry and his mission friends had kept documents and records of this unique time in church history. They generously allowed DaBell and her team to digitize the documents they had, and even gave some to the university for its permanent collection.
Among these documents were photographs and videos of the exterior and interior of the pavilion, visitor’s comments, letters, journal entries from missionaries, and newsletters from the mission president. Copies of the Book of Mormon and pamphlets from the Expo were also graciously donated for this project.
The public can view all of the digitized documents and photos at https://www.byui.edu/expo-murals/.
Many visitors left comments of wonder and awe at the messages they had heard within the pavilions.
One visitor from New York said, “Very beautiful. I have never seen anything so beautiful in all my life.”
Another from Canada said, “I felt good, clean, and happy after my visit.”
A visitor from Texas said, “More of this, no doubt, shall save our world.”
Others were so interested in the messages shared, that they left their names and addresses for the missionaries to look them up later.
One missionary who served in Osaka, Japan said, “Speaking of Expo, the ‘Mormon Pavilion’ was a bigger success than anybody ever expected. Six and a half million people entered the pavilion. Of those, over 300,000 referrals will be coming to the Japan Central Mission. So, it ought to keep us busy looking them up for quite a while.”
In fact, by the time President Henry J. Eyring arrived in Japan in 1982, they were still looking up referrals from the 1970 Osaka Japan World Expo.
Some people wanted to be taught right away, as one elder recorded in a letter home:
“We’ve looked up a lot of referrals this week, and we’ve talked to several people who invited us to come back and talk with them. On Monday (13th), we picked up another investigator–right at the pavilion! He came downstairs while I was working in the Book of Mormon room. Another elder started talking with him, then called me over when he found out this fellow was from Sakai. Well, he wanted to make a meeting with us, and I was more than eager to agree. He met us back at the pavilion an hour later, and we rode back to Sakai together.”
Another elder explained the great responsibility he was charged with as a tour guide in the “Mormon Pavilion” of the Osaka Japan World Expo:
“…as the only pavilion at this entire exposition with a message to present on Christianity, we carry the burden of introducing 100 million Japanese people to Christ. It’s kind of frightening to consider that less than one percent of the entire population of Japan is Christian. And just over 1/10 of one percent are ‘Mormons.’ That’s why the work at this pavilion is so important, I feel. And why I’m proud to be a part of it.”
DaBell stated that even her own conversion stemmed from these expositions. The missionaries who taught her in Korea used slides and images from the “Man’s Search for Happiness” video, and gave her one of the pamphlets that showed pictures of the mural.
“There is power in this artwork,” DaBell said. “We hope to have visitors see our displays and these historic paintings once again, and we hope that it will touch people’s lives and give them an opportunity to think of the purpose of their life seriously and in a meaningful way.”