The Missouri Historical Society wants to prove it is more relevant than ever to St. Louis’ diverse population, and during Black History Month, African-American St. Louisans will have an opportunity to see more of the society’s new mission.
Leigh Walters is the assistant director of communications at the Missouri Historical Society (MHS). She said MHS began the rebranding process several years ago with a renewed focus on in-house, locally-focused exhibits.
“We’ve been evolving over time, and more local-focused exhibits have led us to really change who we are over the past few years,” Walters said. “We are no longer the same institution.”
In addition, MHS signed an agreement with the city to take over operations of the Soldiers’ Memorial Military Museum, which is devoted to military history from World War I onward. Walters said it no longer made sense to do business with the public as the Missouri History Museum; they wanted to make sure each location had its own brand identity under the umbrella of the Missouri Historical Society.
The new branding of the MHS focused on the interconnectedness of its three branches: the Missouri History Museum, Soldiers’ Memorial and the Library and Research Center. Each has its own jewel-toned logo, and they share a new motto: “Find Yourself Here.”
Walters said the new tagline immediately clicked as a representation of MHS’ mission.
“It spoke to not only a call to action to ask people to come in and be here, but also that we strive to collect, preserve and share the stories of everyone who calls the St. Louis community home, and that includes underrepresented groups,” Walters said.
For the majority of its long history, Walters said, MHS focused on “white, male, heterosexual history.” Beginning several decades ago, they began making an effort to change that.
For example, Walters said, an exhibit on the Louisiana Purchase included the story of a woman of color who was a business owner in New Orleans when it was a territory of Spain. When the region became a territory of the United States instead, she could no longer legally own property.
In addition to including those stories in all their exhibits, the museum has created exhibits focusing on the unique histories of underrepresented groups. Its “#1 in Civil Rights” exhibit, currently on display, focuses on the long fight against racism in St. Louis.
Shakia Gullette, the manager of Local History Initiatives at the museum, focuses on creating programming about and for the African-American community. She said the museum is focused on creating programming that will make everyone feel welcome.
“For me, coming in and doing community programming, it brings joy to me,” said Gullette. “I love our new tagline. I believe that through using ‘Find Yourself Here,’ every single person in the city will be able to come in and see themselves and identify.”
In May 2017, the Missouri History Museum became the first museum to receive the new Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion (DEAI) award from the American Alliance of Museums, the accrediting body for all museums.
Walters also emphasized that the Library and Research Center is more accessible than it might sound. Anyone is welcome to use the center’s collections to research St. Louis history; many people use it to research the history of their family or the house they live in. The center routinely hosts workshops on genealogical research, including some specifically for African-Americans.
MHS is also trying to reach more young people, including through their ACTivist program. The theatre-based program sends actors to area schools to portray the roles of civil rights icons. Walkers said the ACTivist visits are a good alternative for schools that may not have the budget for field trips.
Gullette said MHS also wants to hear from members of the community about what they want to see from their programming, and she has so far seen a robust response.
“There is a hunger for the type of history that we have been producing recently,” Gullette said.
During the month of February, Black History Month, the museum is hosting several related events, from “Black Masculinity and the Black Speculative Arts Movement” on February 1 to “Free Your Mind: The Psychological Dismantling of Oppression” on February 27. Community members can also join discussion groups on the history of protest, join a women’s book club focused on race relations or see a musical about Dred Scott. For a full schedule of events, visit mohistory.org.
“If you only collect and share and preserve the history of one group, it’s not good history,” Walters said. “This community deserves to know everyone’s story, and everyone in this community deserves to have their story preserved and shared.”