Growing Kirkwood Roots

30, December 2011

From over two years of research and preparation, a small but important exhibit was developed at the Missouri History Museum. Kirkwood Roots is an artful installation of interviews, photos, and evocative objects exploring the historic African American community in Kirkwood, Missouri, a small municipality located about 14 miles west of downtown St. Louis. It’s an intimate portrait of this place, from the first settlement before the Civil War to the period of intensive suburban development following World War II. Much of the exhibit exposes how the natural environment once influenced and sustained a way of life and the connections between people.

Delivery of timbersDelivery of timbers for processing.

A team of staff developed the seminal exhibit concept, proposed by the museum’s electronic media developer. The development of concepts and form of the work took place over several months. As research evolved, stories were recorded and objects were acquired or designated from the museum collections. The parallel tracks of this process allowed for flexibility in the final design, with comments and observations from the community helping to shape the way in which it was to be represented. In the last few months prior to the exhibit opening, several iterations of design plans and gallery text were produced, while contractors, interns, and community members contributed final touches to the display.

Farm table reproductionA farm table reproduction used in the Kirkwood Roots exhibit. Courtesy Dale Dufer Studios.

Many objects were considered in an effort to represent a time span of decades. Choices were based on accuracy of culture and period, relevance to the stories portrayed in the recorded interviews, and the aesthetic sense that their color, form, and textures contributed to the whole. This work necessitated many excursions to our collection storerooms and material suppliers and contractors, as well as trips “to the field” for photographs, video recordings, and plant specimens. The rare skills necessary to fabricate some of the materials, such as the appropriate railroad ties and period farm table reproductions, required collaboration with contractors on their abilities, as well as the facilities and equipment they might use. Many hours were also given to researching published images of botanical drawings and area maps, and the assessment of census data. Scaled floor plans and elevations of the gallery space were drawn and redrawn over the span of the process to reflect the evolving vision for the finished gallery space.

The result was a well-received expression of the community’s qualities and how they have influenced individual members’ lives.

The words of Paul Ward, Kirkwood resident and project interviewee, sum up the importance of his community:

“Living here, I know I have a responsibility, like my father did and his father before him. You should want to be respectful to those around you. That’s what I think Kirkwood is all about. Blacks in this community are just as important because we were here when the community was first started. We are part of whatever it is and that shouldn’t be ignored.…

….You sometimes have to realize that we are all important and there is not one race that makes America what it is, and we have to all recognize and respect what we bring to the table. That’s what I hope comes out of this, that we realize we are all important.”

Kirkwood Roots, on view through February 26, 2012, is an expression of love and respect for a community and place, formed from a core of dedicated staff, interns, and contractors. Its topic was infectious, with contributions also made by a variety of interested individuals and volunteers. Having brought such a vital subject to the appreciation of many participants and visitors, we hope Kirkwood Roots will continue its influence for years to come.

—David Lobbig, Curator of Environmental Life