Introducing 250 in 250
St. Louis will turn 250 years old in 2014, and we recently decided to plan an exhibit to commemorate the anniversary. This exhibit gives us the opportunity to tell St. Louis’s history in a number of new ways and to invite our visitors to think broadly and deeply about the city’s past, present, and future. It also gives us the opportunity to take our History Happens Here readers behind the scenes of the exhibit-making process in a way we’ve never done before.
Over the next 14 months, you will be there for every step of the process. We will share with you the discussions and debates about which stories we want to tell. We will show you how our conservators prepare artifacts for display. We will explain how designers create the look of the gallery and how they determine the ways stories, objects, and images should be showcased. From the creation of a logo to getting the exhibit on the floor, you will be there to see it all unfold.
What we know so far is this. Our exhibit commemorating St. Louis’s 250th anniversary will open in February of 2014 in the gallery that is currently being used for the Discover the Real George Washington exhibit.
Also, we have already decided how we want to organize the exhibit (this often doesn’t happen until later in the process). We will tell 250 years of St. Louis history through 50 people, 50 places, 50 moments, 50 images, and 50 objects. That framework provides us with a number of opportunities but also a number of challenges.
Some exhibits spend years in development, but for this anniversary exhibit we have just a little more than a year to go from idea to opening. So this structure gives us an organizing framework that will allow our staff to hit the ground running for content development.
The exhibit team, which includes representatives from a wide variety of areas within the museum, has begun working on lists for each section. Members of the team are currently creating their own lists of potential names to be included on the 50 People list. Meanwhile our curators are creating their own lists of potential objects for the 50 Objects list. We will come together in early January to discuss those lists.
And that brings us to the challenge of the 50 people, 50 places, 50 moments, 50 images, and 50 objects structure. We have to decide what gets included and what gets left out. We might as well admit that packing 250 years into this kind of list is impossible. And we aren’t kidding ourselves. We know we can’t include everything, and we know that some tough choices will have to be made. Ultimately, we want to come up with a list that reflects the richness, complexity, and diversity of St. Louis’s 250 years of history.
We also believe that coming up with these lists will be an exciting challenge for us and make for an engaging exhibit for our visitors. We fully expect these 250 selections to be argued over, but we also know that museum exhibits are at their best when they spark conversations.
No exhibit can answer all the questions of history, but every exhibit can ask visitors to look at history in new ways. And that too is what we hope to do with this series of articles. We will encourage you to look at the building of an exhibit in a different way by inviting you to tag along throughout the process rather than just asking you to come to the exhibit once it opens.
If you have specific questions about the process or would like to see a certain story, feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments section. This should prove to be an interesting process and project, and we look forward to you taking the journey with us.
—Jody Sowell, Public Historian
To read more articles in this series, click here.