Trustees of the Missouri Historical Society (MHS) and Commissioners of the History Museum Subdistrict have unanimously appointed Jody Sowell, PhD, to be the new president of the Missouri Historical Society, which operates the Missouri History Museum, MHS Library & Research Center and Soldiers Memorial Military Museum, effective July 11, 2022, following the retirement of President Frances Levine, PhD. Currently the Managing Director of Public History for MHS, Dr. Sowell will be the seventh president of the Society. Sowell has been with the organization for 16 years. The selection follows a 12-month national search process, partnering with outside consulting partner Museum Search & Reference of Londonderry, New Hampshire.
“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,” said Dr. Frances Levine, president of the Missouri Historical Society. “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.”
“We are delighted that Dr. Sowell, who has 16 years of senior staff leadership experience with the Missouri Historical Society, most recently as Managing Director of Public History, and who has already contributed greatly to the success of the Missouri History Museum in reaching broader audiences, will bring his vision, passion for history and superb communication skills to the role of president. He will continue the momentum of the Society as a nationally recognized, award-winning educational and cultural institution that St. Louisans are rightfully proud of,” said Lisa McLaughlin, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Missouri Historical Society and Chair of the Search Committee.
“Dr. Sowell has demonstrated his strong commitment to, and creativity in fostering, greater engagement with and service to diverse and traditionally underserved members of the community, and we look forward to working with him as we continue to grow in these areas,” said Sandra Moore, Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Missouri Historical Society and member of the Search Committee.
“The Subdistrict Commissioners and Museum Trustees worked side by side in a collaborative effort to find the right person to lead the Missouri History Museum forward,” said Dr. Simone Cummings, chairman of the Missouri History Museum Subdistrict Commission. “Dr. Sowell’s academic credentials, museum leadership experience and commitment to the public interest will serve him well as he guides the Missouri Historical Society forward.”
Sowell joined MHS in 2006 as an oral historian and served as Director of Exhibitions and Research before becoming the Managing Director of Public History in 2019. As Director of Exhibitions and Research he was instrumental in the Missouri Historical Society’s conscious decision to develop more exhibits in-house that shared local history in innovative ways, rather than relying on traveling shows. This approach led to some of the highest attendance years in MHS history. In his six years as Director of Exhibitions, the Missouri History Museum opened 8 of the 10 most visited exhibits in its more-than-100-year history. Those exhibits included 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 also oversaw the development and opening of the Missouri History Museum’s first permanent exhibit for kids, the History Clubhouse, which won an Award of Merit from the American Association of State and Local History in 2016. Sowell also managed the team that created MHS’s first feature-length documentary, Show Me 66: Main Street Through Missouri, which won a regional Emmy.
Prior to joining the Missouri Historical Society, Sowell worked in journalism as a reporter at the Dallas Morning News, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism and a news editor for the Columbia Missourian.
During his time as Managing Director of Public History, Sowell was crucial in leading the Missouri Historical Society’s approach to sharing history during the COVID-19 pandemic and temporary closure of MHS’s three locations. Sowell was the project manager and writer of the Missouri History Museum’s popular #UpliftingSTL social media series. Each day the series shared a positive, inspiring story from the city’s past, giving St. Louisans a break from an overwhelming news cycle at the beginning of the pandemic. The #UpliftingSTL project resulted in a 105% increase in the museum’s social media engagement during the COVID shutdown. Sowell also wrote the script for MHS’s St. Louis Strong video. With over 200,000 views the video was one of the most successful social media projects MHS has done. Sowell has worked closely with President Dr. Frances Levine to develop the Missouri Historical Society’s strategic plan for the 2020s, which will include new core galleries, increased access to collections, new programs and tours and additional diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility efforts. MHS is in the middle of a capital campaign; as the new President and CEO, Sowell will oversee the completion of the campaign’s fundraising goals, which will be used to enact this strategic plan.
“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,” said Sowell. “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 and teaches regularly at Saint Louis University and Fontbonne University. He also holds a master of arts in journalism from the University of Missouri and a bachelor of arts from Southern Methodist University. Sowell is a member of the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) and has served as a judge for AASLH’s Award of Merit. He is a member of the American Alliance of Museums and currently serves on the Community Advisory Board for KDHX.