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Exclusive Interview: Frances Levine Will Head Missouri History Museum

Blair Clark | Museum of New Mexico

The Missouri History Museum has named Frances Levine, director of the New Mexico History Museum, as as its new president and CEO.

Levine, 63, will become not only the first woman to lead the museum but the first woman to head any institution of the St. Louis Zoo-Museum District. Her contract was approved this morning in a meeting of the museum's board of trustees and members of the ZMD museum subdistrict.

She'll fill the seat vacated by Robert Archibald in 2012. Archibald resigned amid controversy over issues including the purchase of land on Delmar Boulevard and his compensation.

Levine's base salary will be $235,000, or $260,000 including benefits. That compares to Archibald's $375,000 base and his more than $500,000 in vacation buyout.

In an exclusive interview, Levine talked with St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon about the museum and its recent history, including a circuit attorney's report that cleared the museum of criminal wrongdoing but chastised it for a lack of communication and cooperation. Levine sees the report as an important set of guidelines for future governance.

"We're lucky to have the circuit attorney's report that both clears the past and sets a very good path forward for how we'll all work together," Levine said. "It really tells us … how do we communicate among our members, how are decisions made? They give us very, very clear ideas about spelling out records management, records retention."

'You've Got To Have Clear Communication'

A lack of transparency was among the criticisms leveled at the Missouri History Museum in the report and by others in the past year. Since 2006, Levine has been the vice chair of the New Mexico Public Records Commission, established to review the records-management of all public agencies, including issues of public access. In our interview, she underscored the importance of openness in any institution, especially those with a division of power.

"In any shared governance procedure, you've got to have clear communication. So one of the things we'll be working on is that transparency and decision-making process," Levine said.

Levine said she has already observed good cooperation during her interviewing and hiring process.

"What I've seen are committees acting together," Levine said.

She also sees distinct responsibilities already in place for the board and the commissioners.

"I don't think there was as much confusion within the walls of the museum as might have been alluded to in newspaper articles. It seems much clearer to me, and I'm not anticipating big problems with that," she said.

Even though Levine is first female president of the museum, she's not concerned about walking into any sort of members-only club.

"Throughout my career, I've always been in the boys' club," Levine said. "It's true, nationwide, that women didn't really start assuming leadership roles in museums until the last, maybe, decade or so."

Levine is set to begin her work with the museum on April 15.

"It's a big job, I'm really looking forward to it. I'm an experiential learner, I have to dive right in," she said. "And I'm looking forward to looking at the ground, learning the stories, understanding the community."

A Collision of Cultures

Levine will come back to St. Louis for the kickoff of the city's 250th birthday in February. The milestone is just one reason she's excited about coming to St. Louis. Italian food and local architecture are among her other reasons.

"I'm loving the architecture in St. Louis. It's so different for me, living with adobe buildings for the last 36 years," she said.

Levine has a couple of particular passions. One is the Spanish colonial period. "But really, what I love is culture contact — what happens when people of different cultures come together," she said.

Levine was born in Connecticut. She and her husband — a historical consultant — have two grown children. Levine holds a B.A. in anthropology and archeology from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a master’s and PhD in anthropology from Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

She was assistant dean of Academic Affairs for Arts and Sciences at Santa Fe Community College before becoming director of the New Mexico History Museum in 2002.

In this video, Levine talks about the serendipity of arriving in St. Louis just as the city celebrates its 250th birthday.


Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: NancyFowlerSTL

Read more about how the History Museum got to this point

Scandal casts shadow on Archibald's transformation of History Museum (Mary Delach Leonard, Dec. 22, 2012)

"The sharing of memory brings about not only self-knowledge but also mutual understanding and trust between people. Memories are the cords that bind individuals together as neighbors, communities, and even larger groups. Conversely, mutually exclusive or conflicting memories can create mistrust and divisions between people. It is this principle that informs my own professional work in a public history organization.''

from “A Personal History of Memory,’’ an essay by Robert R. Archibald.

Frank Jacobs, a past chairman of the museum’s board of trustees: “Under his tenure, what was the old Jefferson Memorial Building — which basically was a place for Lindbergh trophies and Veiled Prophet crowns — really became a center for everybody in our community.”

History Museum hires firm to search for new president  (Dale Singer, June 20, 2013)

When he resigned, Archibald walked away from a contract that would have paid him a salary of $375,000 along with a housing allowance of $33,000 and the possibility of a raise and a bonus. He also received $566,000 for more than 400 unused vacation days.

Archibald helped raise $1 million as consultant, history museum says (Dale Singer, July 3, 2013)

History Museum agenda: Retain, restore and refocus (Dale Singer, Jan. 28, 2013)

John Roberts, head of the museum's board of trustees and de facto president in the wake of Robert Archibald's departure, says trustees and subdistrict commissioners will work hard to win back public trust.

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Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.
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