ST. LOUIS — A new leader has been chosen for the Missouri Historical Society (MHS), which operates the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park, the MHS Library & Research Center and Soldiers Memorial Military Museum downtown.
Jody Sowell, currently managing director of public history for Missouri Historical Society (MHS), was appointed as its president and CEO by its trustees and commissioners of the History Museum Subdistrict, officials said Thursday in a press release. Sowell, who will be the society's seventh president, has been with the organization for 16 years.
His appointment is effective July 11, with the retirement of current MHS President and CEO Frances Levine, who announced in July last year that she planned to retire in mid-2022. Levine, who was the first woman to lead the MHS, took the post in 2014.
As MHS president and CEO, Sowell will oversee operations of its three facilities, a budget of about $20 million, a $100 million endowment, and over 200 full- and part-time employees. The nonprofit organization is funded by private donations as well as taxes collected in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County through the Metropolitan Zoological Park and Museum District.
“Jody and I have worked together so well, and I know he has the long-term health of the Missouri Historical Society — and commitment to MHS, the staff and the community — at heart,” Levine said Thursday in the release. “Jody is creative, articulate and enthusiastic. I learned my love of St. Louis from listening to Jody, and I know he’ll bring everything he has to the role.”
Officials said Sowell has worked closely with Levine to develop MHS's strategic plan for the 2020s, to include new core galleries; increased access to collections; new programs and tours; and added diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility efforts. Sowell also will wrap up a capital campaign, currently in a quiet phase, that will be used to fund that plan, officials said.
“The Missouri Historical Society is at a pivotal moment – in the early stages of a capital campaign and in the middle of multiple projects that will transform how we share history – and that will cement our role as a national leader,” Sowell said in the press release. “We will introduce people to a St. Louis they have never met, and we will continually reinvent how we do that.”
A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Sowell holds a doctorate of philosophy in American studies from Saint Louis University, a master's degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a bachelors' degree from Southern Methodist University.
In 2006, he joined MHS as an oral historian, later serving as director of exhibitions and research before taking on his most recent post as managing director of public history in 2019.
Officials said that while Sowell served as director of exhibitions and research, he was instrumental in the society's decision to develop more in-house exhibits on local history rather than relying on traveling shows. During his six-year tenure directing exhibitions, the Missouri History Museum opened eight of the 10 most-visited exhibits in its more than century-long history, including "250 in 250," "#1 in Civil Rights: The African American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis," "The Louisiana Purchase" and "A Walk in 1875 St. Louis."
Sowell oversaw the development of the Missouri History Museum’s first permanent exhibit for children, the History Clubhouse, which in 2016 won an Award of Merit from the American Association of State and Local History. He also managed the team that created MHS’s first feature-length documentary, "Show Me 66: Main Street Through Missouri," which won a regional Emmy.
Sowell also teaches at Saint Louis University and Fontbonne University. He is a member of the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) and the American Alliance of Museums, and serves on the Community Advisory Board for KDHX-FM.
Prior to joining the Missouri Historical Society, Sowell had worked as a reporter at the Dallas Morning News, an assistant professor at Mizzou's School of Journalism and a news editor for the Columbia Missourian.
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