St. Louis on the Air
4:24 pm
Wed August 21, 2013

250th Anniversary Of St. Louis Inspires Museum Exhibit '250 in 250'

In recognition of the 250th anniversary of St. Louis, the Missouri History Museum is compiling an exhibit called "250 in 250," highlighting 50 people, 50 places, 50 images, 50 moments and 50 objects.

"I suppose the easiest thing for us to do would have been to do an exhibit on the city's founding," said Jody Sowell, director of exhibitions and research at the Missouri History Museum. "But we really wanted to come up with something that would cover that whole span of time, and really show the richness, diversity and complexity of that history."

A discussion of the Missouri History Museum's exhibit "250 in 250" opening on February 14, 2014 in recognition of the 250th anniversary of St. Louis.

The staff of the museum got together and hashed out the candidates for inclusion in the exhibit, each one with their favorites. The end result is what Sowell called "one of the most collaborative efforts we've ever done at the museum."

"We would get around a conference table and have index cards, and put out the index cards of all the people we thought...should be included, and then we'd pin up the ones on the wall that were actually going to make it," said Sowell. "And we had incredible debates."

One of the places researcher Andrew Wanko successfully suggested for inclusion was the Del Taco building on Grand, also known as the Flying Saucer. In 2011 the building was slated for demolition in a study on blight.  The building now contains a Starbucks and Chipotle Mexican Grill.

"That's one I really lobbied for hard right from the beginning," said Wanko. "What was so amazing was to see that immediately there was such a strong response for this---what you would really call an ugly duckling building. It's not beautiful in the traditional sense of the word. It's beautiful because of what it represents to a vibrant city as a unique structure that can't be replicated anywhere else."

Gwen Moore is the curator of urban landscape and community identity at the Museum.  She felt it was important to include the People's Finance Building, built on the northwest corner of Jefferson and Market.

"It was the brainchild of seven black men," said Moore. "They got together in 1923 and decided they were going to start a general loan business." Nicknamed The Hub, it became the center of African American life in St. Louis. But like the center of the Chinese community in St. Louis, Hop Alley, the People's Finance Building was destroyed to make room for new development.

The museum strove to represent the diversity of St. Louis in the exhibit, which opens in February 2014, to, as Moore put it "tell the stories of the people left in the margins." The research becomes a little more of a challenge because records are harder to access, said Moore, but it was a challenge she was glad to meet.

One of the 50 objects included in the exhibit is a Poro Pressing Oil tin. For Moore, showcasing the tin is a chance to tell the story of African American entrepreneur Annie Malone from a different angle.

"I think that a lot of people who might know Annie Malone, and know that she built this empire based on beauty products, might not know other aspects of the work that she did," said Moore. "This pressing oil tin not only represented an amazing amount of wealth, she was rumored to be a millionaire....but it's what she did with her money that fascinated me."

Each section of 50 selections will be handled differently. The 50 moments section, for example, will be audio recordings of first-hand accounts of moments in time. The 50 images section, on the other hand, will be showcased on a screen with audio commentary.

The exhibit will open on February 14, the day Auguste Chouteau landed on the shores of the Mississippi to begin construction of the fur trading post that developed into the city of St. Louis.

A few more examples of people, places, images, moments and objects included in the exhibit can be found by listening to the audio of the show but the museum is keeping most of them hush-hush for now.

"We don't want to give too much away," said Sowell, adding that part of the fun will be the surprises and allowing people to join the conversation about what should be included.

It is important to note, however, that the exhibit showcases the dark parts of St. Louis history as well as the moments of pride.

"We are commemorating, not celebrating, the 250 years," said Sowell.

A previous version of this story incorrectly listed Pierre Laclede, not Auguste Chouteau,  as the person who landed on the banks of the Mississippi on February 14.

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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