UMSL students laid groundwork for new Lindbergh exhibit at Missouri History Museum

Flores Mexicanas

Patrons visit “Flores Mexicanas: A Lindbergh Love Story,” an exhibit now on display at the Missouri History Museum. Twelve UMSL museum studies students helped bring exhibit to fruition through their work in a “Practicum in Exhibit and Program Development” course in the fall of 2017. (Photo by August Jennewein)

The 12 University of Missouri–St. Louis MA in Museum Studies students knew what they were signing up for when they enrolled in the “Practicum in Exhibit and Program Development” course for Fall 2017.

Approximately.

They knew it would be their job to work with the Missouri Historical Society over the course of the semester to create a concept proposal packet for a new exhibit at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park.

Flores Mexicanas plaque

A plaque at the entrance to the “Flores Mexicanas: A Lindbergh Love Story” exhibit highlights the contributions of the UMSL museum studies students to making it a reality. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Something small, probably. Maybe their work would eventually come to life in the museum’s atrium.

On the first day of class, Missouri Historical Society President and CEO Frances Levine visited with a bit of news. The MHS had recently pulled a giant, 9-by-12 painting out of collections and had begun the process of restoring it. The work, “Flores Mexicanas” by Alfredo Ramos Martínez, was a wedding gift to Charles and Anne Lindbergh from Mexican President Emilio Portes Gil in 1929.

The students had 12 weeks to do the legwork for one of the museum’s main coming attractions: an exhibit centered on “Flores Mexicanas.”

“It was a pretty overwhelming first day. I think I had a couple people mad at me,” said Sam Moore, a 2015 UMSL museum studies graduate who taught the class. “The students knew it was a big project, that they’d be working on some kind of exhibition concept. They did not know they were being given the task of building something like this out. There were some shell-shocked faces for sure, but they were able to run with it.”

The students completed a 93-page concept packet in November 2017. This June 1, “Flores Mexicanas: A Lindbergh Love Story” opened at the Missouri History Museum. The exhibit, which runs through Sept. 2, uses the titular painting and other artifacts from the Missouri Historical Society collection to weave the tale of Charles and Anne Lindbergh, Ramos Martínez, U.S.-Mexico relations and the process that brought this obscure work of art out of storage and into the 21st century.

The students who worked on the concept still see their fingerprints all over the final result.

“There were a couple places that I could recognize some of my sentences,” said Samantha Johnson, who earned her degree from UMSL in 2018. “On the converse, I would read something and think, ‘Wow, they made that sound a lot better than I could have.’ I got to thank Adam Kloppe, who is the public historian for the museum, for all his hard work of bringing the show to life and he said, ‘No, thank you. Everything you guys wrote, all the research you did, this exhibit wouldn’t have happened without you guys.’”

To tackle the project, the students split into three groups: content researching and writing; design and visitor experience; and programming and marketing. They had tandem goals of making the story of a grand but little-known painting accessible to a St. Louis audience – hence the Lindbergh angle – while also presenting Lindbergh in a way that hadn’t been done much before.

That involved fleshing out Charles’ relationship with Anne, an accomplished author and aviator in her own right, and the tour of Mexico and Latin America that Charles took after he became an international celebrity. Johnson combed through Anne’s diaries during her portion of the research and writing. Andrew Schleicher, a 2019 UMSL MA graduate, focused more on Lindbergh and his international trips as an unofficial ambassador of the United States.

Flores Mexicanas

Missouri Historical Society President Dr. Frances Levine speaks with UMSL Museum Studies students about the “Flores Mexicanas” painting in the fall of 2017. (Photo courtesy of Sam Moore)

Still another part of the content team contacted Louis Stern, the executor of Ramos Martínez’s estate, and Amy Galpin, a leading Ramos Martínez scholar, to find out more about the artist and “Flores Mexicanas.”

Neither of them even knew the painting existed.

“It was done so early in his career that it looks almost nothing like anything else he did,” Moore said. “Everything you see in the exhibition about Alfredo Ramos Martínez is result of the work that the students did. That is not a research base that the Missouri Historical Society had, or had reason to have, so the students bore the full burden of figuring all that out. It’s killer. It’s just wild.”

With such a truncated timeframe – Moore said an exhibit plan like the one the students produced might take years for a museum to complete – teamwork was essential. Even though the class split into three groups, members of each helped out with different parts of the project when needed.

It took after-class skull sessions, Saturday get-togethers and nearly constant collaboration through Google Drive, but the students accomplished their goal and handed over a thorough framework to the Missouri History Museum for production.

“It was a really amazing team effort,” Schleicher said. “Sometimes with a team, there are interpersonal things, and you never really gel. With this, we absolutely did. We were on the same page with a lot of things. Even with any kind of disagreements, we handled them really well. It was an amazing group.”

Nearly all of the class members attended a special showing of the exhibit the night before it opened and got to see their concept become reality, complete with a plaque listing their names and commemorating their efforts. They also got to catalog the experience as a valuable learning tool for their fledgling careers in museums.

Flores Mexicanas

MSL students come face to face with the “Flores Mexicanas” painting for the first time in collections storage at the Missouri Historical Society Library & Research Center. (Photo courtesy of Sam Moore)

Johnson said the class set her up for success at her first post-collegiate job as project curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Sophie Grus, a 2018 alumna who worked on the programming portion of the project, cited multiple examples from putting together the Lindbergh exhibit concept during her successful interview for a post as curator of exhibits at the Missouri State Museum at the state Capitol in Jefferson City.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better class in terms of the project we got to work on, my classmates as a whole and Sam as our instructor,” Grus said. “It really was invaluable.”

Mariah Huelsmann, MA 2018, did the bulk of the research on the U.S-Mexican relations and Alfredo Ramos Martínez. Jeffrey Pryor, who graduated last December, played a role in exhibit design and helped with installation. Others involved – all of them now graduates – included Matthew Sweeney (MA 2018), Jenna Krukowski (MA 2018), Emily Geno (MA 2018), Pete Davis (MA 2019), Brittany Golden (MA 2018), Alec Graham (MA 2019) and Miles Jenks-Starcrash (MA 2019), their individual efforts in specific areas of the exhibit all contributing to the completed whole.

Moore, the director of public programs for the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, got his first look at the exhibit in mid-June. He’s still impressed by what the students produced.

“The Missouri History Museum is a longtime partner that has a ton of respect and trust in UMSL students,” Moore said. “There generally are not, in the museum field, opportunities for students to do this kind of work on major exhibitions that are then actually open and public-facing. A lot of times you get pure design for small art galleries or concepts that never actually come to reality. But this is a full-on part of MHM’s annual calendar, which is a cool thing for the students.”

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