Eye on Exhibits: We Aim to Disappoint

Eye on Exhibits

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

We’ve been hearing a lot of complaints from our visitors lately, and quite frankly, we couldn’t be happier. I assure you we aren’t usually happy when we hear about disappointed visitors, but in this case we think it’s a good sign. Let me explain.

What we keep hearing as our popular A Walk in 1875 St. Louis exhibit nears its close is something along the lines of, “I wish they would make it permanent” or “I can’t believe they are going to close this exhibit.” We’ve heard similar laments after the closing of several recent exhibits.

This gives us a good chance to explain our approach to telling St. Louis history. We are committed to telling more St. Louis stories than we ever have before, and we are equally committed to telling that history in new and dynamic ways. In 2014, we opened seven exhibits, and six of them focused on an aspect of our area’s history. In 2015, we opened six exhibits, and five of them had a local focus. This year, we will open six new exhibits, and four will be about St. Louis and Missouri history.

A Walk in 1875 St. LouisA Walk in 1875 St. Louis, opened in April 2015, has notched a place in the record books as the third most visited exhibit in the Missouri Historical Society's 150-year history.

Many museums rely on big traveling shows to attract audiences. We continue to bring in those kinds of exhibits as well, but we made a conscious decision in 2014 to start putting more focus on local history. And you have responded. In the last two years, we have opened our second, third, and fifth most visited exhibits in our 150-year history. (Those were 250 in 250A Walk in 1875 St. Louis, and The Louisiana Purchase.) The years 2014 and 2015 also marked the first time in our history that we’ve seen back-to-back years with more than 400,000 in attendance.

I can’t say that we are completely surprised by the success. This is a city that loves its history, and it has such a fascinating history to tell. Our job as public historians is to explore that history from different angles and to share it in a variety of ways. That, of course, means we have to close exhibits to make way for new stories.

I like to think of the sum of our work as a “thick description” of St. Louis. Thick description is a phrase often used by cultural anthropologists to describe how they interpret and share the multiple meanings of events and actions. They often use the example of a wink to explain this approach. That simple movement of an eyelid can have many meanings—a wink could be conspiratorial, could be flirtatious, or could be because someone has a speck of dust in their eye.

Father's Day 1875A line of eager visitors to A Walk in 1875 St. Louis stretches through the Grand Hall and out the front door on Father's Day 2015.

A city, especially one like St. Louis, is much more complex and has many more meanings than a simple wink. So what we try to do is give you a better understanding of the history of this area by providing, over the years, a thick description that explores the many meanings of this city and state. At one point, we might examine a single year in St. Louis history. At another, we might examine how the Louisiana Purchase changed our city and its residents. At another, we might look at how fashion shaped our identity or how Route 66 wound its way through the city. In coming years, we are going to look at the civil rights history of St. Louis, how panoramic photography has captured different views of our area, and how local musicians have shaped music history. By exploring all of these meanings and contexts of our city, I believe visitors get a better understanding of St. Louis as a whole.   

By the way, our staff and volunteers hate to see many of these exhibits close just as much as you do. I usually make sure to come in on the final day of every exhibit so that I can see it one last time, and I’ve noticed lately that many staff and volunteers are spending extra time in 1875 as it nears its close. That exhibit closes on February 14, so if you do want to see it again, you don’t have much time left.

What makes us feel better about these closings is the knowledge that we have many exciting exhibits ahead. We can’t wait to share them with you, and, we really hope you will complain when it comes time to close those as well.

2016 Exhibits at the Missouri History Museum2016 exhibits at the Missouri History Museum. We're looking forward to your complaints when it comes time for these exhibits to close!

 —Jody Sowell, director of exhibitions and research