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Missouri History Museum seeks to tell the full story of the 1904 World’s Fair

Jody Sowell is the president and CEO of the Missouri Historical Foundation
Emily Woodbury
St. Louis Public Radio
Jody Sowell is the president and CEO of the Missouri Historical Foundation

Living in St. Louis means having some knowledge of the city’s remarkable claims to fame. Gateway Arch National Park, St. Louis’ signature accent, the infamous, vertically sliced St. Louis bagel, and residents’ refusal to call St. Louis Bread Co. by their new name are just a few ways St. Louisans distinguish themselves from residents of other cities.

The city is also rich with unique history, including the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, more commonly known as the 1904 World’s Fair. Ask anyone from St. Louis about the fair, and they’ll tell you about the first Olympic Games in the United States, popularization of the ice cream cone and the classic musical film “Meet Me in St. Louis,” which culminates in an outing to the fair.

The fair’s “human zoo,” segregation, and celebration of American imperialism, however, are not mentioned as often — and are often forgotten entirely as key experiences of the event.

The Missouri Historical Society is looking to change that.

Open since 2004, the 1904 World’s Fair exhibit at the Missouri History Museum will close April 30. The museum plans to revamp and reimagine the exhibit and to prominently display the experiences of people of color. Jody Sowell, president and CEO of the Missouri Historical Society, told St. Louis on the Air that the closure will be a major task. Signature galleries, like the 1904 World’s Fair exhibit, have updates once every couple decades. “My guess is people have been talking about updating [the 1904 World’s Fair] exhibit five years after it began,” he said. “This redo of the World's Fair gallery is actually a part of the bigger transformation of the Missouri History Museum, where we're redoing a number of our long standing exhibits.”

The new exhibit will feature historical storytelling from the perspective of Filipinos and the Philippine reservation, one of the more popular attractions at the World’s Fair. “Our tagline for this exhibit [will be]: ‘We're going to help you relive the wonder, but also re-examine the complexity.’ I think that those are going to lead to some pretty amazing discussions,” Sowell said. “And those are going to happen in all sorts of ways. Those will certainly happen through programs and tours, but I imagine that also happens at dinner tables after people have come to visit the exhibit.”

Patrons can visit the World’s Fair exhibit before it closes for remodeling. On April 29 and 30, museum visitors can experience the fair in 3D, using stereograph images taken at the event 119 years ago. They can also preview the new exhibit which will debut in the spring of 2024.

“[The Missouri Historical Society] made a commitment to telling more St. Louis stories,” Sowell said. “And we saw an immediate impact — more than a 63% increase in attendance… all by putting a focus on St. Louis and saying we want to play a different role in this community than most historical societies.”

For more on the changes to the Missouri Historical Society’s 1904 World’s Fair exhibit and the ways history determines the success of a region’s future, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast or Stitcher, or click the play button below.

Missouri History Museum seeks to tell the full story of the 1904 World’s Fair

Related Event
What: 1904 World’s Fair exhibit closing celebrations
When: April 29 and 30
Where: Missouri History Museum (5700 Lindell St. Louis, MO 63112)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Miya is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."