Beyond ‘Cool Artifacts’: Missouri History Museum Appoints New Leader Who Values the Past and the Future | Arts and theater
The new head of the Missouri History Museum knows the institution well, having helped create some of its most popular exhibits from the past. But he also believes the museum can help the people of St. Louis understand the present and plan for the future.
Jody Sowell, 49, who has worked for the museum for 16 years, was named president of the Missouri Historical Society, which operates the museum, the MHS Library & Research Center and the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum next Thursday.
His appointment by the society’s trustees and commissioners of the history museum‘s subdistrict takes effect July 11, following the retirement of current chairwoman Frances Levine.
He said he likes to tell people, “I love St. Louis. I didn’t grow up here, but I got here as fast as I could.
Sowell will guide the company’s ongoing fundraising campaign, so far a low-key effort to raise $50 million to provide essential resources for exhibitions, collections and other needs. About $15 million was raised.
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In addition, he said Thursday, the next decade will be busy with efforts to redo the main galleries, introducing a new World’s Fair gallery and a new decade-by-decade walk through the history of St. Louis. He wants to further digitize the society’s collection: at present, only about 5% of the holdings are digitized.
“In the years and decades to come, you’ll see more of the Missouri History Museum than ever before,” he said.
It has focused and will continue to focus on diversity in exhibits and personnel, he said. Upcoming exhibits will range from St. Louis baseball to immigration, segregation and LGBTQ stories.
“I think you’ll hear a lot more about how we help connect people to the past, but with the goal of getting them more interested in the present and invested in the future of St. Louis,” he said. he declares.
Sowell has “already contributed greatly to the success of the Missouri History Museum by reaching a wider audience,” Lisa McLaughlin, chair of the society’s board of trustees and search committee, said in a press release. “He will continue the Society’s momentum as an award-winning, nationally recognized educational and cultural institution of which the people of St. Louis are justifiably proud.”
Sowell, now the society’s managing director of public history, will serve as its seventh president and earn a salary of $275,000, the lowest among the five tax-funded subdistricts of the city’s Metropolitan Zoological Park and Museum District. . Taxes cover about half of the company’s $22 million annual budget; the rest comes from donations, memberships and the society’s endowment.
Sowell’s selection follows a year-long nationwide search, in partnership with outside consultant Museum Search & Reference of Londonderry, New Hampshire, the company said.
President Frances Levine, who announced her retirement in July, was the first woman to lead an institution in the Zoo-Museum District. Appointed in 2014, her current base salary is $350,000.
“Jody and I have worked so well together, and I know he cares about the long-term health of the Missouri Historical Society — and its commitment to MHS, staff, and the community —,” Levine said in a statement. . “Jody is creative, articulate and enthusiastic. I learned my love of St. Louis from listening to Jody, and I know he will bring everything he has to the role.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Sowell grew up in Arkansas. His bachelor’s and master’s degrees are in journalism. The latter was from the University of Missouri-Columbia, and his first job was at the Dallas Morning News. His doctorate is in American Studies from St. Louis University.
American Studies covers art, culture and history, much like a museum does, he said. Her focus for the degree was post-World War II urban history. He lives with his wife and two daughters, the youngest going to college in the fall, in Tower Grove South.
Sowell was working on his doctorate when he joined the society in 2006 as an oral historian and served as director of exhibitions and research before becoming managing director of public history in 2019. According to the society, he helped as Exhibitions Director to develop more exhibitions. in-house in innovative ways rather than relying on traveling shows.
According to the press release, in Sowell’s six years as director of exhibits, the Missouri History Museum opened eight of its 10 most-visited exhibits, including ‘250 of 250,’ ‘No. : the struggle for freedom of African Americans in St. Louis”, “The Louisiana Purchase” and “A Walk in 1875 St. Louis”.
He also oversaw the development of the History Clubhouse, the museum’s first permanent exhibit for children, according to the announcement. He was honored in 2016 by the American Association of State and Local History.
Before the pandemic, attendance at the free museum had topped 400,000 visitors a year. It hasn’t gotten back to that level yet, Sowell said. Attendance was strong for “St. Louis Sound,” he said, and for the Twilight Thursday concert series. More student groups visit.
He does not consider other museum exhibits as competition. But he sees things like phones, TikTok and home entertainment as a challenge to attendance.
“If historic societies don’t constantly reinvent themselves, they won’t survive,” he said.
The Missouri Historical Society should also be seen as shaping the future of St. Louis. These societies are the “best places to learn about the context of contemporary issues and to dream and debate the future of these issues,” he said, as the population loss of St. Louis, the division city-county and segregation.
A history museum isn’t just a place to see “cool artifacts”, he said: “You have to know that you can come to a history museum to find out how we got here and how we can improve these issues.”
Photos: Jefferson Memorial at Forest Park, from dedication to contextualization