At first blush it sounds like a goofy idea, but "The Grand Beehive Exhibition" that opens this weekend at the Renwick Gallery is always intriguing and occasionally stunning.

The exhibit, from Utah, explores the use of the beehive as folk, commercial, religious and political art as well as true art. The hive, which once symbolized the defensive and secretive bastion of the Mormons against the world, now appears on the Great Seal of Utah as emblematic of the industriousness of the now-secular state.

The show was assembled by Hal Cannon of Salt Lake City, who is himself a bridge between the old Utah and the new. He is a great-great-great-grandson of Brigham Young, who led the Mormons into the promised land of "Deseret" (a word that founder Joseph Smith said means "honeybee" and is the only surviving term from the original language of Adam and Eve). Cannon is as fervent a Utah booster as his founder-father was, but no longer adheres to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

"The young church relied very heavily on the use of symbols, partly because many of its early members spoke little or no English," Cannon said. "Most of them were adopted from Masonry. But the reaction of the non-Mormons was hostile, and particularly after the federal troops came in to break up the practice of polygamy, symbols such as the all-seeing eye were withdrawn to the Temple.

"But the beehive was a universal symbol, as ancient as civilization, and wasn't so loaded. It rose to dominance as the public symbol of the church, and then of the state."

It certainly did, as anyone who has visited Utah knows. It was a brilliant stroke of what has since become known as public relations.

The symbolism of the beehive, which is gracefully laid out in an essay by Cannon in the exhibit catalogue, is so fascinating that it threatens to get in the way of the objects themselves. They range from a pair of astonishing quilts, one old and one new, to kitsch that is so dreadful it's delightful.

Some have real power, especially Utah Shell Game , sculptor David Pendell's commentary on the proposed MX missile hide-and-seek system. Another bit of social commentary is the beehive-shaped ice cream that has ben served for half a century by Snelgrove's of Utah. "If there is a Mormon vice it is ice cream," the catalogue says.

Cannon stopped at nothing in assembling the exhibit, even stripping the neon sign from the Beehive Bakery in Salt Lake City run by "Rye King" Fritz Haertal. "Actually he made me take the sign itself instead of just photographs," Cannon said. "He was an immigrant to this country and he's proud of himself and the state. He probably would have let us take the whole place."

The giant soft-drink conglomerate that bought out and closed down the Beehive Beverage Co. in Brigham City last year even ran off a special batch of cream soda for the exhibit, so that guests on opening night drank collector's items.

THE GRAND BEEHIVE -- At the Renwick Gallery, 17th and Pennsylvania Avenue, through December 6.