A Conversation With Jody Sowell Of The Missouri Historical Society

Jody Sowell, director of exhibitions and research for the Missouri Historical Society (MHS), wants to meet you—and he’s constantly finding new ways to show Missourians where they came from in a way that’s dynamic, alive, and above all, personal. For most of us, that has meant an occasional trip to the Missouri History Museum to cap off a day wandering in Forest Park. But there’s so much more to the work available for exploration—and what you learn when you get to know the MHS better might just make you rethink a few things.

We talked with Sowell about what it means to chart the complex history of a city on the cutting edge.

You’re not from St. Louis originally, and you didn’t start out working for a historical society. How did you find your way to your role at MHS?
I took a crooked path to get here. I started off as a journalist—that was my background—and then I came to St. Louis to get my doctorate in American Studies from Saint Louis University. Public history, which is what we do at the museum, is a great middle space between journalism and academia. There’s this idea in journalism that you’re reaching wide audiences, but you’re doing all kinds of stories and oftentimes they’re very small. In academia, you’re always talking about important topics, but that often reaches a very small and limited audience. The great thing about working at a place like the MHS is that you’re always talking about big and important topics, but you’re oftentimes talking to very large audiences. That has always excited me. Plus, my wife and kids and I have all fallen in love with St. Louis, and I’ve come to think of it as the most interesting city in the country. I often tell people that I wasn’t born here, but got here as fast as I could.

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A lot of St. Louisans are familiar with the Missouri History Museum, but they have no idea it’s part of a larger organization. What is the MHS?
The Missouri Historical Society actually started in 1866, so we’re more than 150 years old. From the beginning, we were designed to preserve the history of this city. A lot of people think the Museum has been open since the beginning, but it really only came about in 1913. And a lot of people think that MHS is just the Museum, but it’s much more.
What I love about the Society is that it’s always growing and changing.  The Library and Research Center is not only a place where we can house our many artifacts and collections, but where the public can come in and do their own research about their own history. And this coming year, we’ll be opening the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum, which will expand our reach again and let people see how St. Louis has affected war efforts all over the world—all the way back to the Revolutionary War. We’re constantly thinking, ‘How does a historical society continue to reach new people in new ways?’ But always at the core of that is, ‘How do we share and preserve that local history?’ That’s the thing that hasn’t changed in 150 years.

What do you think has kept the Society so relevant and dynamic for so long?
I think the biggest mistake that history museums and historical societies tend to make is when they either overtly or subliminally communicate to visitors, ‘You should be interested in this stuff, and, if you’re not, it’s somehow your fault.’ What we try to do is communicate, ‘We can’t wait to show you this fascinating debate about the past, present and future of this community.’ We’re much more interested in engaging with you, and showing the emotional nature and complexity of the past. Not just saying, ‘Here are a bunch of dates you should remember, and here’s an artifact you should look at, and if you’re not interested in it, too bad.’

History can be alienating for other reasons, too—sometimes it’s painful, especially for marginalized communities whose histories aren’t always reflected in history books. In particular, I love your current exhibit, “#1 in Civil Rights: The African American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis“—but I’m sure there are still challenges to prove to the entire community that this historical society does in fact see them, and wants to tell their stories. 
Absolutely. What I find is that people are actually really hungry for those stories. But, more specifically, they’re looking for comfortable places to explore those histories and discuss them in a civil and informed way. The MHS has been one of those places for a long time. I think we’ve been on the cutting edge of creating programs that really deal with issues of race and class. For instance, it’s become a place that’s really tackled the racial divide in St. Louis head-on. You certainly saw that around Ferguson when many of those conversations about Ferguson were happening here at the Museum. You also see that in our current exhibit, which is on its way to becoming our fourth-most-visited exhibit ever.

Other historical societies may shy away from stories like these that might feel divisive because they think it will discourage people. I’ve found the exact opposite to be true. We see people coming out of these exhibits in tears, and people coming out talking and debating. We hear from countless people that “#1 in Civil Rights” is the most important exhibit we’ve ever done at the Museum. I’m really proud of that.

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Let’s talk about your newest venture, Soldiers Memorial. I know I had no idea that space even existed until I heard the news that MHS was restoring and re-opening it. 
You’re not alone. Soldiers Memorial has been open since 1938, but over time, it’s become largely forgotten. People just weren’t as aware of it, or aware that it was a place you could go visit.

We agreed to take over operations in 2015. We’re renovating the building and making it more accessible, bringing in new exhibits and expanding the exhibit space over twice its original size. We’re restoring the building to its greatness, but we’re also adding a full slate of programming and bringing in so many new elements. For most people, it’s going to feel like a completely new space.

I think St. Louisans will be surprised by our exhibits, too. Yes, we are honoring veterans, and absolutely, we are telling the stories of how St. Louis was involved in war efforts. But we’re also telling stories that really talk about race and LGBT issues—stories that will likely surprise you, that will show you how history is deeper than is oftentimes understood. There are many perspectives that have oftentimes been left out in the past.

What words do you want the public to think of when they hear “Missouri Historical Society” five years from now?
The one thing that I think we want people to really understand is that this is a place for you. History can have lots of baggage—so can words like “historical society.” But at the end of the day, we really are focusing on you. We’re focusing on your region, your interests and how to help you find yourself.

“Find yourself here,” our new tagline, means lots of different things. It could mean that at the Library and Research Center, you might find more information about your family or the house you live in, for example. But it’s also about finding your community and learning more about this place that you call home. You can do that at Soldiers Memorial—you can find out about how this area contributed to war efforts across the globe, which I can guarantee have touched your life. You’ll find yourself at the Missouri History Museum, where you’ll hear stories about everything from the 100th anniversary of the Muny to the long and important history of the Mississippi River.

All of our institutions are places where you can find out more about yourself and your community, no matter which institution you visit. And you can do it in such a way that really stays with you. These stories about the past shouldn’t be quickly forgotten. That’s the exciting part of this work, and that’s what happens at every institution under the MHS umbrella.

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