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New Location Takes History Into the Future for State Historical Society

Janet Saidi
The Center for Missouri Studies is the new home of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

The State Historical Society of Missouri houses the state’s largest collection of oral histories, newspapers dating back to the year 1808, 12,000 Civil War manuscript pages, and more than 30,000 pieces of art, all adding up to more than 74 football fields worth of material, according to SHSMO.

Until now, these collections were housed in the basement of Ellis Library on the campus of the University of Missouri.

That’s all about to change. 

“My favorite thing is the openness of this building,” says State Historical Society Senior Associate Executive Director Gerald Hirsch.

Standing in the open atrium of the Center for Missouri Studies on a recent mid-July morning, Hirsch said the Center - the brand new home of the State Historical Society of Missouri -  isn’t just any building.

Credit Janet Saidi / KBIA
The library of the new Center for Missouri Studies will be open to researchers, students and citizens researching what Executive Director Gary Kremer calls 'the complexity of this place we call Missouri.'

The white oak used in the atrium’s grand staircase comes from southeast Missouri and Poplar Bluff. The limestone of the structure comes from historic St. Genevieve County. And the building design is the result of about a decade’s worth of discussion between Kansas City-based architects Gould Evans and SHSMO staff.

“The process from design has been probably one of the unique aspects of this building,” said Hirsch. “We had every member of our staff attend various meetings, to talk directly with the architects about their needs.”

At the Center for Missouri Studies building, which overlooks Peace Park on the edge of MU’s campus, the word confluence comes up a lot. While the state of Missouri itself features a merging of two rivers, staff say they hope the building itself will reflect a confluence of people, history, the town and the university - all coming together in this $35 million, 76,000 square-foot building.

Credit Janet Saidi / KBIA
Gary Kremer calls the new Center for Missouri Studies a "sacred place." The executive director of the State Historical Society Missouri is shown in his office on July 16, 2019.

Executive Director Gary Kremer says for him the building process began more than a decade ago - in the state capitol. In 2008, he went to the Capitol corridors and started talking about the need for a new space. With a national financial crisis and drastic state budget cuts, it was a bad time to start the conversation.

But Kremer says he found getting legislators on board with the project was easier than he expected - whatever side of the aisle they were on, they had something in common: Missouri. 

“I'm a fifth generation Missourian,” said Kremer. “I love Missouri. I love its history. And I encountered people who shared that love, regardless of their political persuasion, regardless of their party, regardless of the region of the state. "

In 2015, the $35 million in bonds was approved by the state legislature. 

And this summer historical society curators and staff have been busy moving the collections – including about 58,000 reels of microfilm, 44 historic-map cabinets, family papers and letters from the Civil War and the Santa Fe trail into the offices, storage spaces and galleries. It helps that the space they are moving into is more than triple the size of their former space at Ellis Library.

Credit Janet Saidi / KBIA
SHS art collections curator Joan Stack says visitors expecting to see huge paintings of Thomas Hart Benton at the new SHS gallery space will not be disappointed. Stack posed next to Benton's "Embarkation" on Tuesday, July 16, 2019.

Art collections curator Joan Stack said the best of the SHS art pieces tie universal historic experiences that tie the past to the present day. 

“We are the State Historical Society of Missouri,” said Stack. “And one of the things we want to do with the artwork is help people better understand history through the art.”

For instance, Stack said works in the gallery like George Caleb Bingham’s “Order Number 11” document a historic refugee experience that we see unfolding today, and might not associate with Missouri. 

“Art has the ability to bring you into different period of history in a way that really good text does,” said Stack. “It really appeals to various senses. It has a strong emotional component. And, even seeing these works in person rather than see them in a book, you can see how large many of them are and that creates a certain experience.”

Kremer said for him the building is more than a physical space. 

“For me, it’s almost a sacred place,” he said. “It's a place of, again, contemplation and reflection, and research and understanding, and a place for people to come to grips with the question of what is Missouri and who are Missourians? And how have those answers changed over time?”

The State Historical Society’s Center for Missouri Studies celebrates a grand opening this Saturday, August 10th, and the public is invited to the celebration.

Kremer said he hopes visitors discover a places that encourages “a greater understanding of the complexity of this place we call Missouri.”

Janet Saidi is a producer and professor at KBIA and the Missouri School of Journalism.