Interview: How History Museum's '250 in 250' STL Anniversary Exhibit Was Created and What Visitors Can Expect

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

The Missouri History Museum is set to open a new special exhibit honoring St. Louis’ 250th anniversary as a city with “250 in 250,” featuring 250 years of St. Louis history told through 50 people, 50 places, 50 moments, 50 images and 50 objects. The exhibit opens Feb. 13 and runs for a full year, closing on Feb. 1, 2015. As Director of Exhibits, Jody Sowell explains that cramming 250 years of a city’s history into one exhibit is not an easy task.

250 in 250 Missouri History Museum

Courtesy of Missouri History Museum

So how did they mount the exhibit? How did they decide what got into the exhibit and what did not, and what can people expect to experience when they visit? Who better to answer these questions than Sowell himself.

ALIVE: Explain the origin and the concept of the “250 in 250” exhibit.

Jody Sowell: We wanted an exhibit to commemorate the city’s 250th anniversary, but that’s a hard thing to do, to put 250 years of history into one museum exhibit. We knew we didn’t just want to do an exhibit about the city’s founding or the biggest moments in the city’s history, but we were looking for something that would show the diversity of stories that are part of St. Louis’ 250 years. So that’s how we came up with this concept. Two hundred fifty years of St. Louis history: There’s 50 people, 50 places, 50 images, 50 moments and 50 objects. We’re not trying to pick the most important in any of those categories, but showing the richness, complexity and diversity of the city’s history.

ALIVE: Are the sections presented in similar styles, or do you take different approaches?

JS: We want each section of the exhibit to feel somewhat different. When visitors go into, say, the 50 moments section, it’s all firsthand accounts of St. Louis history. Those are stories from our oral history collection—someone’s diary or a letter—that we had a voice actor come in and read, so when visitors come in the 50 moments section, it’s essentially an audio section where they will hear “voices of the past” talking about the history that they saw firsthand.

Throughout the exhibit, whether it be in the people section, places section, or objects section, you’ll see history both big and small. So you’ll see those big important moments that we all know—Charles Lindbergh, August Choteau—but you’ll also find some surprises, some things about St. Louis history you didn’t know. In the people section, you’ll find politicians and poets, murderers and musicians, a cardinal and a clown. When people see this exhibit they’ll realize how fascinating St. Louis history was. They’ll see these snapshots and have the history laid out for them.

ALIVE: How did you select what would be included in the categories?

JS: We had a big exhibit team that would meet and sort of hash out which selections should be picked for each of these categories. Those discussions quickly turned into debates. I don’t think that they ever turned into fights, but people were pretty passionate about who they wanted to see in each of these categories. When we first started out, I foolishly believed that by saying I wasn’t trying to pick the 50 most important in any of these categories, that would make things easier, that we wouldn’t be having the debates that we had. But no, we had just as many debates. We had 300 possibilities and we just sat around a table and started discussing. And to get them down to 50 each? It was pretty tough.

ALIVE: How long ago did you begin working on the exhibit.

JS: We started about a year ago, so really, not that long. Sometimes exhibits are developed over two years, three years, even five years or longer. This exhibit came together probably more quickly than some of our others, but it was made possible by the fact that probably everyone on our staff pitched in. This is probably the most collaborative exhibit we’ve ever done. It didn’t have just one curator; it had all of our curators.

ALIVE: You have a number of corollary events planned?

JS: That’s right. The exhibit is open all year, and throughout the year we’ll have a wide variety of programs, ranging from workshops where you can learn about St. Louis history, to lectures and book signings, and I’m advocating strongly for a sing-along—“Meet Me in St. Louis”—in our theater, so I think we’ll be doing that.

One of my favorite programs that we’ll be doing throughout the year is the first Sunday of every month from 1-4pm, we have a project we’re calling, “Step Inside a St. Louis Image.” Through the magic of green screen technology, you can insert yourself into one of those great historic St. Louis images. So if you wanted to walk across the frozen Mississippi like you’ve seen in our images, or be part of a Cotton Club band or in a Charleston competition, you can do that through green screen technology. It’ll be a different image each month. And then visitors get a copy of that photo for free. It’s a pretty amazing thing to offer people.

ALIVE: Does the exhibit focus on mostly the good stuff?

JS: This is not just an exhibit full of celebratory stories. You’ll find plenty of the darker moments in St. Louis history. You’ll hear about St. Louis race riots. You will hear stories about slavery. You will hear stories about battles over discrimination. Some of those stories will be inspiring; all of them will cause us to think, and some may be depressing—we talk about the tragedy as well as the triumph.

ALIVE: Could you describe one of the darker or more tragic moments?

JS: In the Moments section, we have a firsthand account of a woman who witnessed with her daughter, one of the deadliest air crashes in St. Louis history, and that was the 1943 Glider crash. The glider was produced in St. Louis and this was its maiden voyage, so they packed it with city dignitaries, including the mayor. On its very first flight, it lost one of its wings and crashed to the ground, killing everyone on board. This woman saw it with her daughter and says, still to this day, she can hear the thud as it hit the ground.

ALIVE: Why should we celebrate anniversaries or similar milestones? Does some good come from it?

JS: Of course, historians are interested in these stories all the time, but anniversaries give the rest of us that trigger to stop, take a moment, and think about our shared past. Anniversaries are sort of a pause button. They’re a moment to stop and reflect on our past, think about where we are today and make plans for the future.

ALIVE: The exhibit appears to be very balanced.

JS: It reflects on the philosophy of MHM. Other museums might just focus on the founding and say that’s really the story we want to tell. We have always been conscious about expanding the number and types of stories we tell about St. Louis’ history. People have become accustomed to the fact that the History Museum is not going to tell the region’s history from just one perspective. We work hard to make the story diverse. It’s not going to be a series of “important men.” It is going to be stories about women, about Americans, about immigrants. We work hard to make our exhibits diverse, and that’s especially important for the anniversary year. This city was built by many people of all different races, ages and backgrounds, and you find those at the MHM.

“250 in 250” opens Feb. 13 and runs through Feb. 1, 2015. For more information about the exhibit and special programs that coincide with the exhibit, please visit the Missouri History Museum website.

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