Eye on Exhibits: Right Now

Eye on Exhibits

Jody SowellDr. Jody Sowell, director of exhibitions and research for the Missouri History Museum

Right now is a great time to come to the Missouri History Museum, not just because you can see great exhibits and programs, but because now is a time when you can see first-hand much of the philosophy that drives our approach to sharing history.

Right now, you can come to the Museum to see why we believe it’s important to put more focus on local history and tell that history in engaging, dynamic, and sometimes surprising ways. Many history museums rely on blockbuster traveling exhibits to attract visitors, but we made a conscious decision a couple years ago to spend more of our resources on creating local exhibits. We also decided to try new approaches to telling local history. Where Did You Go to High School? is a smaller Atrium exhibit that examines the classic St. Louis question. It’s also an example of our focus on local history and how we tell that history in different ways. We decided to ask the students in our Teens Make History program to create the exhibit. After all, who better to research, write, and design an exhibit about high school than high schoolers? They brought a fresh perspective to the topic and created a great show. (I especially love the section where they included historic headlines about what we might at first consider present-day issues—yes, parents and kids were complaining about too much homework even in 1900.) Providing new perspectives on local history is what we try to do in all of our exhibits. We don’t always rely on teenagers, of course. We’ve also increasingly used artists to help us tell history in different ways. Whether it was the chalkboard mural in 250 in 250 (drawn by Andy Cross) or the floor-to-ceiling illustrations that made up A Walk in 1875 St. Louis (created by Dan Zettwoch), these artworks can engage audiences in new ways. We’ve also incorporated more films into our exhibits in the past few years. These films, all created in-house, help us reach an expanded audience both in the galleries and outside the Museum, where they often live on in classrooms and theaters. Whether it’s partnering with others or telling history in new formats, the goal is always the same—to reach as many people as we can with the fascinating history of our area.

Image of Little Black Dress exhibitMHM members preview Little Black Dress: From Mourning to Night on April 1, 2016. Access to exhibits before they open to the public is just one benefit of membership.

Right now, you can come to the Museum to see how we’re showcasing more of our collection. The Missouri Historical Society, which operates the Museum, owns one of the country’s biggest and most important collections of historic artifacts, spanning from before the city (or the country) was founded right up to today. We can’t possibly show all of that collection all the time, but by creating more in-house exhibits focused on St. Louis history, we’ve been able to feature more of the collection more regularly. Little Black Dress: From Mourning to Night is a current example. The exhibit includes more than 60 dresses from our acclaimed textile collection. You may be surprised to know that we have one of the most extensive textile collections in the United States and that clothing from this collection regularly appears in museums nationwide and around the world. American Spirits, a Prohibition exhibit created by the National Constitution Center, is a recent example. The Constitution Center wanted to create a speakeasy section in this exhibit, so they came to us to look for flapper dresses and other items they could include. The exhibit has been seen in Philadelphia, the Twin Cities, Indianapolis, and Seattle—wherever it travels, the labels let visitors know that the clothing comes from the Missouri Historical Society. The bottom line of all this? We want to ensure that visitors both at home and far away get the chance to engage with our amazing collection. As part of this, in the coming years you’ll see artifacts that speak to our city’s civil rights history, to our musical history, and to the history of the Mississippi River. We’re also in the beginning stages of rethinking our upstairs galleries with the hopes of redesigning them to showcase even more of our collection. Stay tuned for more details as those plans develop.

Spies, Traitors, Saboteurs exhibit logoCome see Spies, Traitors, Saboteurs before it closes on May 8!

Right now, you can come to the Museum to see why we’re committed to bringing the best exhibits from across the country to the people of our area. Although we’ve put more of a focus on local history, we do still think it’s important to host great exhibits from across the country. Right now, but not for much longer, you can visit us to see Spies, Traitors, Saboteurs, an exhibit that gives historical context to the all-too-present issue of terrorism. This exhibit comes to us from the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, and follows traveling exhibits that have come to us from Monticello, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and even the Pro Football Hall of Fame. We believe it’s important to bring these exhibits to the people of our area because they give visitors insights into history that they may not be able to get otherwise. Not everyone can go to Washington, DC, to visit the Holocaust Museum or the Spy Museum, so it’s important for us to bring at least a piece of those museums to St. Louis. Later this year we’ll be bringing in Toys of the '50s, '60s, and '70s from the Minnesota History Center, one of the country’s best history museums. But instead of having to travel to St. Paul in the dead of winter to see it, you’ll get to see it right here. Saving you from trips to St. Paul in the winter isn’t exactly our mission, but bringing you the best exhibits from across the country certainly is.

Image of kids in History ClubhouseChildren enjoying their visit to our History Clubhouse. Their smiles make us smile, every time.

Right now, you can come to the Museum to see how we reach a diverse range of visitors with the shared history of our region. One of my favorite examples of this is the History Clubhouse, a permanent exhibit aimed at kids age 10 and younger. We’ve loved watching kids play in this new space and seeing them learn a little bit about local history (whether they realize it or not). Ultimately, that’s the key mission of the Clubhouse. Any museum can create a play space for kids, but what we created was a place where kids can have fun while learning about local history. They can blow a whistle on a Mississippi River steamboat, serve food at the World’s Fair, help build the Wainwright Building, and much more. We believe we can connect even our youngest audiences with local history and spark a passion for community—and for museums. This is part of a larger effort to reach audiences of all ages, backgrounds, and levels of interest in history. It’s why we explore such a wide variety of topics in our exhibits (and even more in our programs); it’s also part of an effort to make sure there’s always something of interest to everyone who walks in our doors.

Right now, you don’t even have to walk in our doors to see the work of the Missouri History Museum. Our most recent exhibit is a fascinating look at St. Louis as captured by Sievers Commercial Photographers. The photographers who worked for this studio, especially Isaac Sievers and his son Alvin, captured amazing images of the city and its people during much of the 20th century. They took photos of everything from Cardinals greats to the staff and patrons of local watering holes. The Sievers photographers were especially known for their huge panoramic photographs of the city. Where can you find examples of their work? In our new St. Louis by Sievers exhibit, located in the baggage claim area of Terminal 2 at Lambert Airport. As much as we want people to come to the Museum, we realize not everyone can or will. So we want to move beyond our walls and meet people where they are. In the last couple years, we’ve put up small exhibits at universities, libraries, and even shopping malls. You’ll likely see more of these kinds of pop-up and on-site exhibits in the coming years. Yet these exhibits are just one way we move beyond our walls—right now you can also hear us sharing local history in a weekly radio piece on KDHX, on social media, and through community presentations. We do all of this in an effort to bring history directly to you.

Workers install the "St. Louis by Sievers" exhibit at Lambert Airport in April 2016.St. Louis by Sievers going up at Lambert Airport earlier this month.

We were honored last weekend when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch named us the Best Museum in St. Louis. Those kinds of recognitions are always nice, but what we believe is even more important is engaging our visitors with the past in ways that are creative and unexpected, in ways that reach a wide variety of audiences, and in ways that work both at the Museum and in the community. That’s not just our philosophy, that’s our passion. And right now is a great time to see it on display.

—Jody Sowell, Director of Exhibitions and Research

 2016 exhibits at the Missouri History Museum