Eye on Exhibits: I Hated It

Eye on Exhibits

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

“I hated that exhibit. It gave such an ugly view of our city. I hate for people from out of town to see it.”

“We didn’t really care for that one. It was just a lot of stuff on the walls to read.”

Those were two comments about what, by all accounts, was one of our most popular exhibits ever. A Walk in 1875 St. Louis was experienced by more than 230,000 people, making it the third most visited exhibit in this institution’s 150-year history. The exhibit won the Go! Magazine and St. Louis Post-Dispatch Readers’ Pick Award for Best Museum Exhibition in 2016; it also received an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History.

For those of you who didn’t get to see it, 1875 was both the story of one of the most fascinating maps in American history and an exploration of a single year in St. Louis’s history. The inspiration for the exhibit was Pictorial St. Louis, a hand-drawn perspective map published in 1875 that showed in incredible detail every park, every school, every business, every house, and even every outhouse that existed in St. Louis that year. We enlarged pieces of the map to give visitors the sense that they were walking down those St. Louis streets of years ago. Then we went a step further. We wanted to show what life was really like on those streets, so we partnered with local artist and cartoonist Dan Zettwoch to create floor-to-ceiling illustrations that explored every aspect of St. Louis life in 1875, from what people were eating to how they got around town to why they were being sent to the rock yards.

Panel from 1875 exhibitClick to see a larger version of this panel showing the making of Pictorial St. Louis from the popular 1875 exhibit.

When you walked into 1875, you not only saw Pictorial St. Louis displayed at a scale never before attempted but you also felt like you’d walked into the middle of a graphic novel or cartoon strip. It looked like no exhibit I’d ever seen and was a great example of the way the Missouri History Museum is trying to tell stories in new and dynamic ways. Audiences, the press, and historians across the country were clearly impressed, so why would I bring up the negative comments we received? Well, I think they point out what’s distinctive about public history and how it differs from academic history. They also reflect one of the driving philosophies behind our approach to telling history. First, I should explain the two negative remarks.

Because 1875 tried to detail all of life in that one year, it also looked at the uglier aspects of what that time was like, from the dirty water St. Louisans were bathing in to the homeless children, labeled “street Arabs,” who roamed the roads. The first commenter didn’t think this was what we should be showing to people who were visiting our city. And although 1875 included some great artifacts, from the kind of bike that 1875ers would ride to an example of an 1875 mousetrap, a big feature of the exhibit was those floor-to-ceiling illustrations. For the second commenter, those illustrated graphics felt like just a lot of stuff to read.

View inside 1875 exhibitLooking into the gallery of A Walk in 1875 St. Louis.

And that brings us to public history. I often speak to college history classes filled with students who want to become history professors. Their vision of the history profession is speaking in front of classrooms and writing academic articles and books. That’s an honorable path, but it’s very different from the kind of public history practiced in museums. The difference is right in the title. Practicing public history means interacting with the public, and interacting with the public means people are going to tell you when they don’t like something. People tell me about the exhibits we should be opening. People tell me about the exhibits we never should have closed. People tell me what we got wrong in exhibits (sometimes these are actual errors, but more often they fall into the “you should have showcased this and not that,” “I can’t believe you didn’t include this,” or the “well, that’s not what I learned” categories). And, yes, sometimes people tell me they hated an exhibit. These are interactions that most history teachers simply don’t have. I know this because I’ve taught college classes and not once has someone come into my room and said I should be teaching something else or that they hate the topic I’m covering.

For many historians these sorts of interactions with the public are reasons to steer clear of public history, but for me, these conversations showcase the real power of public history. There’s a historian named Michael Frisch who wrote an important book called A Shared Authority in which he argued that historians should increase the way they involve the public in telling history. They could do this by allowing visitors to write their own memories or tell their own stories through oral histories. At the Missouri History Museum, we often take that approach, but I think shared authority goes even deeper. The people who criticized 1875 didn’t necessarily want to be part of creating that exhibit, but they did feel empowered to share their thoughts about it. That’s because we don’t just share authority, we share community. Our visitors feel so invested in this area’s history and in the work of this Museum that they want to express their opinions about how we’re presenting that history. To me, that’s a testament to the connection we share with our visitors.

Views from our LBD and Route 66 exhibitsOur current Little Black Dress exhibit (left) and our new Route 66 exhibit (right). You may like one of these exhibits but not the other, and that's a-okay.

In turn, we’re committed to sharing a wide diversity of stories. Last year, we told stories about one year in St. Louis history, but we also told stories about coffee history, Nazi propaganda, and the Gateway Arch. This year, we’ve tackled topics from the little black dress to terrorism within the United States, and we just started our trip down Route 66. Next year, we’ll explore St. Louis’s civil rights history, examine the effects of World War I on Missourians, and display the moments in St. Louis history that have been captured by panoramic photography. This diversity of stories means you’ll likely find something that intrigues you and, we hope, explore subjects that you might, at first, think aren’t of interest to you. But it also means you’ll likely visit some exhibits you don’t like.

Each year, we get to share history with hundreds of thousands of visitors, and they get to share with us their own history, their own memories, and their own views about how we’re examining the past. Through that sharing we hope to strengthen not only the bond between visitors and our Museum but also the bond between visitors and this place we call home.

—Jody Sowell, Director of Exhibitions and Research

2016 exhibits at the Missouri History Museum

Membership appeal