A Community’s History at the Missouri History Museum

We all have a history, and it is important that local history museums in our community reflect the residents who visit it.

Sharon Smith does just that as the Curator of Civic and Personal Identity at the Missouri History Museum. She certainly has an intriguing job title, but just what does it involve? “I focus mostly on collections and objects that are unique to St. Louis,” explains Smith. “For instance, thinking about civic identity – I work with the 1904 World’s Fair and Charles Lindbergh collections. When we think about personal identity we might think about childhood, so I have the toys and dolls; we might think about being fans of sports teams, so I have the sports collections and then we might also think about how we identify – we might have a disability, we think about gender, and we think about sexual orientation.”

Photo of Missouri History Museum Lindell entrance to the Missouri History Museum with the former Delmar Loop trolley in front. Photo by Marcus Qwertyus

And it’s this deliberate interest in collecting all kinds of history – including LGBTQ history – that is particularly inspiring and makes the MHM a perfect institution to profile for June, which is Pride Month in countries around the world. Local history museums, MHM included, have the specific mandate to collect the stories of their residents, and to be a mirror to the community. When asked how collecting LGBTQ history is important to the museum’s mission, Smith proudly states, “One of the goals of the MHM is to be as accessible as possible. When we first started talking about accessibility it had to do with our focus on the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But, I believe accessibility to mean more. We want to be inclusive for everyone who calls St. Louis home. The LGBT community has not been as represented in the museum as it should be so we have begun the collecting initiative to rectify that.”

In line with this collecting initiative, the MHM was recently offered a large private collection of hundreds of objects – including buttons, drag queen costumes, recorded first-person accounts and photographs – of local queer St. Louis history. This collection, called the St. Louis LGBT History Project, began as the personal collection of Steven Brawley and will soon continue its life at the MHM. Since museums have a finite amount of space, any duplicates of what they already have, such as t-shirts or Pride ephemera, might not be accessioned. “We need to be somewhat conservative about the amount we take,” says Smith, “so that we have the resources to take care of what we accept as well as be prepared for other gifts that come to us with the collecting initiative.” The resources needed include time spent cataloguing and researching every object, photographing it for the museum’s online database, and making storage housings.

ACT UP Coffin from Missouri History Museum collection ACT UP Coffin Carried in Demonstrations to Promote AIDS Awareness in St. Louis made by Gregory Gerhart. Accession # 2004 058 0001. Image courtesy of the Missouri History Museum.

The St. Louis LGBT History Project collection would be the more recent addition to a collection that already has a broad range of LGBT history objects. Some of the oldest objects include a series of the “Alienist and Neurologist” periodicals from 1884-1916, which discuss homosexuality as a disease and lists queer people as “cases.” St. Louis Pride also donated its section of the 1.25-mile-long Key West Pride flag to the MHM, which displayed it in its recent exhibition, “250 in 250: A Yearlong Exhibit Commemorating the 250th Anniversary of the Founding of St. Louis.” One of the very first objects Smith had a hand in accessioning was a homemade coffin made locally for the ACT UP parades in the early 1990s. Of the coffin Smith says, “I knew that it would be tough, though, to find a way to display it since we were not quite in the place we are today. But, I took it with the plan to find a way to get it on exhibit somehow.”

Pride Flag in Pride Flag section on exhibit in the exhibition “250 in 250: A Yearlong Exhibit Commemorating the 250th Anniversary of the Founding of St. Louis” at the MHM. Image courtesy of the Missouri History Museum.

Smith and the MHM hopes to one day produce an exhibition on St. Louis LGBTQ history, but that will take more collecting, more time, and ultimately more money. They need help in buying supplies for storing objects, or salaries for more staff for research and processing objects. While the MHM has a great collection that will be augmented incredibly by Steven Brawley’s collection, Smith notes, “we want others to also consider giving to the MHM. We are looking for objects, letters, diaries, folks interested in recording their stories as oral histories, photographs, etc. I want this collecting initiative to be comprehensive so that when we do plan an exhibition we can tell the best stories of the St. Louis LGBT community.” As local history museums continue to think through their roles in increasingly diverse, networked communities, this approach to collecting – which aims to leverage the museum as a platform for telling the stories and reflecting the identities of its community members – presents an exciting model.

If you would like to help support the MHM, check out its Donations section for ways to donate money, objects, volunteer time or make a legacy gift.

A thank you goes out to Everett Deitle who helped schedule my interview with Sharon Smith, who graciously took time out of her day to speak with the author about the Missouri History Museum and the St. Louis LGBT History Project.