Missouri History Museum director Frances Levine reflects on her tenure
A little over six years ago, I sat down for a conversation with Dr Frances Levine, who had settled into her role as director of the Missouri History Museum the year before. She was the first woman to run an institution in the Zoo Museum District (Min Jung Kim at the Saint Louis Art Museum is the second) in its over 100 year history, and Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson changed the region. of Saint-Louis. forever.
Now, with Levine’s retirement announced for next year and the search for her replacement started in earnest, I have spoken with her again. This time it wasn’t in person but via Zoom, a technology no one had thought much about in 2014, due to a pandemic we never dreamed of.
I reminded Levine that when I interviewed her in the summer of 2016, she had moved to St. Louis from the Southwest Desert, and her first impression was how green St. Louis was. Levine laughs. “I actually have a whole vocabulary of shades of green,” she says. “It used to be just sage green and Christmas green. I can tell you all about green now.
“I’m staying in St. Louis,” she continues. “I have really created a wonderful community bond for myself here. I feel right at home now. I have very good friends here. The cultural facilities are quite amazing. I blame myself for not going to the Rolling Stones concert today.
When Levine arrived at his new home, things weren’t quite as settled as they are now. Brown’s death came just months after she became director.
“I started April 15, 2014,” says Levine. “I remember several staff members coming to me and saying, ‘Please don’t go’. And I said, ‘Why would I go?’ This is the kind of work we have to do in museums. We need to connect with the community.
I asked him specifically what role a history museum plays in current affairs and what it can do to preserve the present before it gets lost.
“I think everyone knew we had to collect now to tell the stories in the future,” says Levine. “When you collect in the moment, you collect from participants. If you wait 10, 15, 50 years, you lose the provenance that the person has for that object.
Right on the heels of Ferguson, the History Museum began Leviathan’s task of renovating and reinterpreting the Soldiers Memorial, which had languished for decades. (I wrote about it opening in November 2018.) The History Museum was in the early stages of taking over the management of the Soldiers Memorial when Levine arrived. It all started with the cataloging of the memorial’s substantial collections, which had been neglected for years. The result was a spectacular revitalization of an ancient forgotten corner of the city center.
“It really helped us expand the reach of our institution. It helped bridge the gap to an audience we didn’t have before, ”says Levine. “It really saved and brought military and veteran history to the fore – it put him in a truly magnificent building.”
Just a few years after the Soldiers Memorial opened, the coronavirus pandemic shut down the History Museum and just about every other cultural institution in Saint-Louis. For Levine, while the pandemic has certainly been a difficult time for the museum, it would have been worse without the Zoo Museum District. City and county taxes helped protect employee salaries and museum programs.
“The ZMD is one of the real lights of the region,” said Levine. “We’ve seen it coming through COVID. We’ve seen this core of funding and commitment to the arts. I think it’s a real civic engagement. I feel honored to be a part of it.”
Levine wants the region to work on more cooperation, after seeing the success of regionalism with the ZMD. Our conversation then turned to some of the special exhibitions that have taken place over the past seven years, and I asked Levine if her perspective as a director has changed since our last interview.
“[The exhibitions team] know more stories than I do, ”she says. “I challenge them [in] the way we do things. I mother the hen a bit, but I try not to micromanage. I think the team has improved in their collaboration with other organizations in the city. I think our programming has improved a lot.
The History Museum also offers free admission to all special exhibits now, which was not the case in the past. Another aspect of some special exhibits has been the ability to reuse portions of the content for display elsewhere after the original broadcast. Five of the most visited exhibitions, such as “Route 66” and “# 1 in Civil Rights,” took place during Levine’s tenure as director.
I asked Levine what she planned to do with the time she had left in the history museum. Like all museum directors, fundraising is always at the forefront. But even with the pandemic-related restrictions easing and museums opening, audience replenishment will be essential in the years to come as people cautiously return to public spaces. The museum’s extensive collections are also in need of relocation, and reimagining of the exhibits is being planned.
I also asked Levine what she saw as the future of St. Louis and the business of history now that the direction of our city has been irrevocably changed over the past decade.
“Right now the way we tell the story is changing,” she says. “We are not looking for what I call received wisdom. History does not have a single voice. History has many voices and many perspectives. How you were raised and where you were educated all play into the way we tell the story. We live in the presence of the past.
Levine continues, “What I love about St. Louis is how proud people are of their history. But they should also be proud of who we are now. And they have to be involved in what we’re building, and I think that’s one of the things we do at the history museum, give people moments that they can be proud of and raise questions about who we are. are and where we are going.