Exploring Your Family Tree in FamilySearch’s New Family Discovery Center

By Diane Haddad

Something cool I got to try during last week’s RootsTech/FGS conference in Salt Lake City is the new FamilySearch Discovery Center, which I can best describe as an interactive museum about your family history.

The Discovery Center I visited is the pilot, located inside the FamilySearch Center in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Another one will be in Seattle, and a third will be in the Museum of the American Revolution, to open in 2017 in Philadelphia. Each center’s exhibits can be customized to its location.

You’ll get the most out of a visit if you have a FamilySearch family tree, but you can get a taste of the experience even without a tree. Either way, you’ll receive images from your visit via email.

When you arrive, sign in on an iPad, either with your FamilySearch login, or as a guest by entering your name, birthdate, and sex, and taking a selfie. Then you carry the iPad with you from station to station, docking it at each one. Stations use your name, ancestor information (if you have a FamilySearch family tree), and uploaded images and stories to help you experience your family history.

For example, the first station showed me the meaning of my first name, stats on my first and last name, and events from my birth year (you can customize this to show highlights from any year during your life).

Another station used an Xbox Kinect-like device to let you pose in the ethnic dress of your ancestors (depending where they’re from) and take a snapshot. If you have a FamilySearch family tree, the ethnicities are chosen for you based on birthplaces in your tree. Otherwise, you can choose from about two dozen.

Here I am as a (somewhat idealized) German fräulein.

The station below maps your ancestors’ origins and places of residence as recorded in your FamilySearch family tree. On the touchscreen, you can pan around the map, select profiles from your family tree, and view photos and stories for those people.

This one is really best if you have a FamilySearch tree. Otherwise, you’ll see a map with statistics on immigration over time.

The next station takes you inside a room that evokes a time machine, with a large curved screen showing a living room in a home, and a large touchscreen that displays your FamilySearch family tree. The living room changes to reflect the time period of the person you select in your tree, and you see stories (not from your tree) about objects on the screen.

Although this station has an impressive setup, it was less personal than the others. My tour guide told me this exhibit is being tweaked because visitors aren’t spending much time here.

Two story recording rooms—one for individuals (on the left in the photo below) and one that also can accommodate groups—let you record your answers to a personal interview conducted by a man on a screen.

You can choose a group of questions based on your age, and some of them are pretty deep (for example, what do I consider my greatest accomplishment and my worst failure, and what have I learned from each). In the future, people might be able to get their questions ahead of time, so they can think about the answers. You can bring photos on a flash drive to view and talk about, and your interview will be emailed to you.

The final station is a review, showing you the screenshots of your experience that you’ll also receive later by email (that’s me below in Armenian dress, the closest option to my Haddad ancestors’ origin in Syria).

I found the Discovery Center a fascinating experience, one with the potential to get visitors excited about their family stories and help them leave a legacy of their own.