Museum says new emphasis on local history boosts attendance | St. Louis Public Radio

Museum says new emphasis on local history boosts attendance

Jan 12, 2016

The Missouri History Museum continues to see drastically increased attendance compared with just a couple of years ago, a trend it attributes to a new exhibit strategy.

Beginning with 2014's "250 in 250" exhibit on the anniversary of St. Louis' founding, the museum has been emphasizing local history that area residents can relate to in their daily lives. 

Director of Exhibitions and Research Jody Sowell said the museum's new strategy focusing on local history is paying off.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio

"Let’s tell local history; let’s tell it in new ways," said Director of Exhibitions and Research Jody Sowell. "Let’s tell it in ways that will engage people who love history but also engage people that think, 'History was that class I had to take in high school and college, and I’m really not that interested.'"

The museum reported 438,621 visitors came through its doors in 2015. That's a 44 percent increase compared with 2013. But it does mark a slight decrease from its record attendance of 496,746 visitors in 2014, which officials said was due to the widespread success of the “250 in 250” exhibit.

Although History Museum attendance is lower than that of the remaining four Zoo Museum District institutions, Sowell said it's better to compare it to other historical organizations.  The St. Louis museum stands out when compared to others around the Midwest, with higher numbers last year than the most recently recorded attendance by history museums in Chicago and Ohio


"We know that those local stories in a national context provide a greater meaning and significance to our visitors,” said Katherine Van Allen, managing director of museum services.

Museum representatives said in the last two years, they have produced more exhibits in-house and at nearby venues, improved their social media campaign, and included area artists and cartoonists in exhibition design.

Managing Director of Museum Services Katherine Van Allen, 37
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio

Those efforts are paying off among visitors. Mathew Coon recently viewed the museum’s exhibition "A Walk in 1875 St. Louis."

“The cool thing about the History Museum, especially lately, is that you know just even looking at this wall I recognize a lot of this stuff and how it ties into the city and things that I’m actually familiar with," he said.

Despite the recent attendance surge, the museum faces a decline in membership. Administrators acknowledged it’s an issue that warrants discussion.

“We as an institution need to look for new models for membership," said Sowell.  

He said that work will be folded into the museum’s overall future strategy, including the continued emphasis on local history.