When a museum forgets that it’s a museum

It’s disappointing that those who are in charge at the Missouri History Museum seem to have forgotten an important rule when it comes to history:  “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  As they apparently played fast and loose with taxpayer dollars in a suspect land deal with a former board member, maybe they should have given a thought to Raymond F. Pisney, the former head of the museum, who was fired when his negligence, arrogance or greed resulted in a number of artifacts missing from the collection.

I’ve been disappointed with the Missouri History Museum for several years, and my lack of regard has nothing to do with a $1 million deal for a vacant lot on Delmar Blvd.  I’m disappointed because the History Museum doesn’t act very much like a museum, much less one that is focused on Missouri.

Consider a few of the recent exhibitions at the facility in Forest Park:  “Hunger and Resilience.”  “Mammoths and Mastodons.”  “The ADA After 20 Years.”  “Treasures of Napoleon.”  “The Splendors of the Vatican.”  And now on view:  “Underneath It All,” an exhibit about underwear.

While some of these may have been interesting and valuable, and receipts undoubtedly added to the bottom line, I have a hard time linking them with Missouri history.

Meanwhile, as viewers contemplate antique underwear, thousands of Missouri treasures are locked away in the Museum’s storage facility.  Post-Dispatch reporter Matthew Hathaway wrote about some of them in a story printed on April 16, 2011.  He described a “priceless cache of more than 150,000 artifacts chronicling the story of St. Louis and the history of the Midwest.”  Treasures range from a pocket watch owned by Meriwether Lewis to a piano owned by William Tecumseh Sherman.  Ninety percent of the items owned by the Museum are kept in storage and cannot be seen by taxpayers in the St. Louis Zoo-Museum district.


Dr. Robert F. Archibald, the current head of the Museum, was once quoted as saying that he “transformed a traditional historical organization into a nationally-recognized model of a community-oriented institution.”

In making this transformation, leaders of the Museum seem to have violated what was once the very purpose of the institution.  According to a statement by the Museums Association (a national organization), “museums enable people to explore collections for inspection, learning and enjoyment.  They collect, safeguard and make accessible artifacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society.”

Under the direction of Dr. Archibald, the Missouri History Museum shifted focus.  The current mission statement doesn’t mention people, exploring, collections, learning or enjoyment.  It reads:  “The Missouri History Museum seeks to deepen the understanding of past choices, present circumstances, and future possibilities; strengthen the bonds of the community; and facilitate solutions to common problems.”

Huh?  Help me if you have a clue about what this means.

In addition to its mission statement, the Museum adopted six “core values” in 2001. They are “civil society,” “empathy,” “inspiration,” “integrity,” “remembrance,” and “stewardship.”   Core value #4, “The Missouri History Museum will earn the public’s trust by demonstrating integrity in all we do,” rings a little hollow in light of the Delmar land deal.

But today maybe an opportunity exists for the Museum to redeem itself.  Core value #6, stewardship, states:  “The Missouri History Museum will reflect the fundamental obligation of every generation to leave this community, region and world in better condition for those who will next inherit them.”

The same day the Post-Dispatch was exposing the Delmar land deal, a story appeared on the front page of the Community section titled “Historic North Side Hub Is Dealt A Major Setback,”  It described the collapse of a portion of a historic former grocery store in the Jeff-VanderLou neighborhood.  The store, part of a three-building complex called Tillie’s Corner, was being rehabbed.  Efforts have been made to get the property listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

So here’s an idea:  why can’t the Missouri History Museum provide emergency funding for this effort?  It makes more sense than paying $1 million for a piece of property that the city values at less than $300,000 (and which the museum admits it now has no use for).    Preserving this property would help foster a “strong and healthy community” (core value #1) in north St. Louis, and would “facilitate public examination of the past” (core value #5).

With creative and constructive actions like this, the Missouri History Museum might be able to redeem its reputation and, at the same time, restore an important and historic part of the built environment in the city that funds it.

[Editor’s note: Barbara Finch’s commentary first appeared as an Op-Ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in October 2012.]