Dr. Frances Levine, who started her tenure as president of the Missouri History Museum in April of this year, walks into a conference room and removes a loud tangle of thick silver bracelets from both of her wrists. While the museum was founded almost 150 years ago in 1866, it currently has over 360,000 followers on Pinterest, with boards ranging from “Prohibition Cocktails” to “Civil War Love Letters.” Dr. Levine replaced former president Robert Archibald, who resigned in 2012 over criticism of his spending practices and salary. Archibald was compensated $375,000 per year, while Dr. Levine will receive over $100,000 less–$235,000 per year. Before moving to St. Louis, she served as director of the New Mexico History Museum, a position she held since 2002. “I never thought I would leave the Southwest,” she says. Dr. Levine has been the first female president of both history museums, a fact that still dismays her. “Why did this take so long?” she questions, her voice trailing off.
Dr. Levine grew up on the East Coast in Connecticut, where the remnants of old stone cabins dotted the woods behind her house. Her parents, avid collectors of American silver, organized frequent family trips to local historical sites. “We visited Sturbridge Village so many times I can still smell the beeswax candle-making exhibit,” she says. When her mother and father added a new antique to their collection, they would give it to their daughter, who would turn it over in her hands looking for a maker’s mark or any other clue to its past. “One of the family after-dinner activities would be researching the pieces they got.”
In college, she did archaeological fieldwork at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, where steep cliffs hide pale sandstone houses built and abandoned many centuries ago. “I studied archaeology because it had so many more women than the field of history, interestingly, when I was in college,” she says. “I didn’t like the structure of museums when I was growing into the profession … women were discriminated against.” Female employees were frequently assigned the tedious tasks of cataloging and cleaning artifacts, and rarely held leadership positions. “At the time I was coming up in my career, the only careers for women in museums were working in Collections,” she says. Dr. Levine knew she wanted to pursue history as a profession, but her mother was apprehensive–when she was growing up, jobs for women outside of the home were limited. “She would have been happier if I had been a teacher or a nurse. She was of that generation that couldn’t understand women reaching for very non-traditional roles.”
After college, Dr. Levine attended graduate school in Dallas, and then moved to New Mexico to continue fieldwork for her doctoral dissertation. Coincidentally, she met her husband, Tom, on an archaeological site. “Isn’t that where everyone meets?” she says, amused by the strangeness of it. At the time, he was working for the state as a historic preservation officer, and he offered to accompany her on an archaeological dig when her partner dropped out. “He spoke, and still speaks, gorgeous Spanish. That was it. I heard him speak Spanish and I was like, ‘Oh my god–beautiful.’” They have two children–a son and a daughter. After they were born, Dr. Levine found it increasingly difficult to schedule grueling outdoor digs around spending time with her young family. “I was a person who would have spent my life outside climbing mountains and hiking,” she says. “I wanted to spend more time with them, and it’s hard when you’re doing archaeology outside.” She began to take more indoor assignments, gradually moving back towards museum work.
When she moved to St. Louis, her husband chose to stay in Santa Fe. “We live in both places,” she says–he visits her frequently. “I live here.” From her perspective, the situation is only difficult “if you make it that way.” “I feel like we’ve added St. Louis, not lost the Southwest,” she says. “It’s quite lovely.” After years surrounded by dry rock and low plants, Missouri’s dense trees remind her of her childhood in Connecticut. “When I look out the window, even today, and see the trees start to turn I get excited. I haven’t had a real fall in many years,” she says, glancing out the window at Forest Park, where the leaves have just begun to turn crimson and orange.
Years ago, Dr. Levine remembers her parents visiting her on one of her digs in New Mexico. She has a photograph of them climbing the rocky side of a mesa to get to the site of her excavation. Her mother was wearing a turquoise pantsuit and a sunhat, and when she finally reached the top, she stood for a moment and looked out at the view, rock and brush stretching out to an impossibly far horizon. She turned to her daughter and said, “You know, I get this. I understand it. Now I understand why you do this.” “It was nice to have their support,” says Dr. Levine. “But I was going to do it whether I did or not.”
Currently, the museum has its exhibition schedule planned out to 2018. Dr. Levine and her staff are already planning each future exhibit simultaneously. “Most exhibitions are a three-year process,” she says. Many of them explore stories throughout history that are often overlooked: this month, the museum will open an exhibit on the immigrant experience in Missouri, and Dr. Levine has a list of shows she has yet to plan. “I won’t live long enough to do the exhibits I want to do.”
In an exhibit wing nearby, red and white Cardinals jerseys hang behind glass, on display in a room dedicated to St. Louis’ baseball history. Dr. Levine walks by a film projected on a screen in the darkened room, which shows a young girl at a baseball game, her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. The image of the girl’s pale face is several feet tall on the wall. Walking past it without a glance, Dr. Levine leaves the exhibit and pauses in a sunlit common area to have her photograph taken. She removes her glasses, but after a few uncomfortable clicks of the camera she insists on putting them back on. Reflections of the camera hover in her lenses. “We have how many thousands of people in the ballpark?” she asks. “I want them all to come through here too. I want them to think a visit to St. Louis is not complete until you’ve gone through the History Museum.”
To learn more about Dr. Frances Levine or the Missouri History Museum, visit here.