"250 in 250": An Interview with Jody Sowell of the Missouri History Museum


In commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the founding of the City of St. Louis, the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park recently opened its latest exhibit, which is titled 250 in 250.

The exhibition tells 250 intriguing stories about the city’s past across five categories: 50 people, 50 places, 50 moments, 50 images and 50 objects. The exhibit — which is free to the public — will be on view through February 14, 2015.

Jody Sowell, Director of Exhibitions and Research at the Missouri History Museum, recently sat down with Forest Park Forever writer Dale Hart to discuss some of the ideas behind the exhibit.

Where did the inspiration for the exhibit come from?
When we decided we wanted to do a 250-year anniversary exhibit, we knew we had to focus on something more than simply the founding of the city — probably the first thing to jump into someone’s mind. I wanted something that would span the whole period and tell a wide range of stories, not just the typical ones. So we asked ourselves, why not use this as an opportunity to showcase how fascinating the city is? 

How many people did you have working on the exhibit?
This is definitely the most collaborative exhibit we’ve ever done at the museum. Normally, exhibit teams will have one curator, and that curator will take the lead on choosing the content and writing the labels. For this project, all curators were involved. We also opened it up to everybody in the institution, asking them, “Who do you think should be in this category?” or, “Should we try incorporating these images?” It really was a team effort, and it had to be, considering the short timeframe and ambitious scope of the project. We had to utilize every corner of the institution and squeeze every ounce of knowledge from all across the field.

Where do you even begin with a project like this?
The initial step was to bring the whole exhibit team together to discuss who should be included in each of the five categories. We’d call for nominations and then jot them on index cards across the conference room table. It was important that we show the rich complexity of the city’s diverse history. There were some fierce arguments, and I warned people beforehand there might be fistfights, but thankfully it never got to that point! I had a guy from the facilities department coming up to me every day saying if we didn’t pick Chuck Berry as one of the 50 people, “we were in real trouble!” 

One thing we really wanted to do was make each section unique. “50 People” is a beautiful, graphic-rich section with compelling stories that have a beginning, middle and end; look at Annie Malone or Butch Kennedy, for example. The “Moments” section is audio-based — starting with Chouteau, all the way up to the guy who caught David Freese’s home-run in game six of the World Series a few years ago. For the more recent stories, we wanted first-hand accounts, but for some of the older stuff, we brought voice actors in so you could still get that experience.

We wanted to have something for everyone, and with this depth and variety of content, it’s achievable. Find something that speaks to you, soak it up and then return to a different section the next time.

What feedback have you received about the exhibit?
The most positive thing we’re seeing is generated discussion. A lot of groups are talking about their own experiences: what they were doing when such and such happened, or “I remember watching this,” etc. It’s amazing to see how much it’s connecting with people. We are now at 11 straight days with more than 1,000 people visiting the museum. 

A couple of weeks back, it was the last day before a snowstorm was scheduled to hit and the museum was packed. I said to my staff, “These people could be outside enjoying the Park or buying the last loaf of bread off the shelves, but they weren’t. They chose to come here and learn about their local history.” That’s something that as a public historian you just love to see.

What’s your favorite part of the exhibit?
I really wanted to get William Carr Lane, the first Mayor of St. Louis in there. He was the one who named the streets after trees, so you’re literally driving through his legacy every day around the city. I think Annie Malone, our first African American millionaire, was important to fit in there — not many people know what she accomplished but, again, she’s hugely influential to St. Louis, particularly the African American community.

One of my favorite experiences has to be interviewing Mel Stein, the 100-year-old former St. Louis police officer who foiled the Southwest Bank Robbery in 1953. Seeing him go back through his mind and tell those stories was amazing. He actually came to the opening presentation, and the reception he received from the crowd was humbling.

People should take this time to connect with the city. You can walk by a place, a monument, even a street and say, “This was once used for doing that, or this object was related to that event…” 

When you start to see the community in that way and learn new things, you have a sense of the present and more importantly, a stake in its future.