Fran Levine wants to learn a whole lot more about St. Louis History, and she is counting on all of us to be her teachers. In April, Levine takes over as the new president of the Missouri History Museum, leaving a similar post at the New Mexico History Museum and Palace of the Governors. She was born a ‘Connecticut Yankee,’ to borrow from Twain, who spent a short time studying at what she calls “a little hippie college” in Maine. But after her dad gave her some sage advice, she knew it was time to move on. “My father came to tell me ‘how the cow ate the cabbage.’ He told me if I was going to do what I wanted to do with my life, then I needed to move West.”
So Levine studied archaeology, anthropology and history at Colorado in Boulder and Southern Methodist University in Texas before landing in New Mexico. Now she’s moving from the land of deserts and Southwestern culture to our old river town. Her specialty is in ethnohistory—that’s the study of history through the cultures and the voices of the people who lived it. She told me her best history teachers are literally everybody she meets. “Everyone is my teacher. I’m really very open—and I have to be to understand how things came to be.”
With that in mind I thought I’d take the opportunity to give her a lesson on St. Louis through the eyes of yours truly. I told her about some of my Mississippi River adventures: fried carp fritters, camping on an island Huck Finn-style, and eyeing fish that jump right into your boat. (I admit I’m somewhat of a river rat.) But I also regaled her with tales of my Geraldo-like search for the Ferris wheel from the 1904 World’s Fair, as well as got her up to speed on the great City-County divorce of 1876. And I suggested that she must catch Chuck Berry at least once at Blueberry Hill.
“It’s going to be a whole new world for me!” she exclaims, adding that it’s also going to be a big move for her husband. “People keep telling me I’m going to die of the heat, and I’m going to be carried away by mosquitoes.”
Levine will come to the History Museum at the end of a controversial tenure, which resulted in the resignation of longtime president Robert Archibald. “I have to look at what has happened in the past: Some things were done right, some were done wrong—and that will be one of my focuses, to learn from the past.”
She says that’s what historians do. On a positive note, Levine arrives in time to help the city of St. Louis celebrate its quarter-millennial anniversary. “The 250th anniversary gives me perspective. It reminds me that what we do every day is going to have a long-term impact—it could be an impact for a year, five years or 250 years,” she says. “What we do every day is what counts—the commitment we make to our community, our history and our children.”
Levine says her first priorities at her new job (after she finds a place to live, preferably near Forest Park) will be to do a lot of learning and listening. “…listening to various community members and groups, and really looking at what works and what’s not working, as well as just a lot of listening about who we are and what can we do to make ourselves better understood.”
Levine plans to put her expertise in ethnohistory to good use, as well. “I’m really interested in the topic of what happens when people of different cultures come together,” she explains. “My field within ethnohistory is culture contact, so I’m really interested in what happened at the confluence of those two amazing rivers. Who were the people who came over time and what brought them to St. Louis?”
Levine is making some St. Louis history herself as the first woman to lead the Missouri History Museum. She says she’s not only interested in the history of our community, but also in learning about the food and the music in St. Louis, among other things. “I want to go to the wineries, and go hiking and floating on the rivers, as well as hear the music and learn to dance again.”
It looks we have a lot to teach her once she gets here. I just hope my stories about fried carp fritters didn’t change her mind.
A native St. Louisan, Paul Brown is a lifelong journalist, and previously served as a broadcaster for KMOX and KTRS radios and ABC 30. His Paul Brown Media specializes in public and media relations.