I spent more hours than I could count inside Ellis Library when I was a student at the University of Missouri.
It’s a big building, more or less in the middle of campus, which is handy if you expect students to, you know, go inside, poke around and discover things. There’s a side door that leads – well, used to anyway – to a small theater where they showed classic films that one is supposed to have seen. I think it’s where I saw “Citizen Kane.” Love that space.
Another side door opened to a long hallway. Somewhere down that hallway was the State Historical Society of Missouri. What I remember is that they displayed art – generally editorial cartoons from newspapers – in that long hallway and anyone was welcome to view it. Walk in. Learn something. It’s free. I greatly enjoyed that.
That was decades ago. As of last Saturday, the State Historical Society of Missouri has a new home. It’s on Elm Street across from Peace Park, so for all intents and purposes it’s still on campus, which is a fine thing.
The Center for Missouri Studies gives the Historical Society far more space now for research, classes, events and, yes, the display of art. The George Caleb Binghams as well as the Thomas Hart Benton “The Year of Peril” works currently on display are terrific, as is the Greta Kempton painting of Harry, Bess and Margaret Truman.
In short, this place is marvelous, something our state has needed for a long, long time.
“Those of us who are students of history celebrate this day,” said Clyde Ruffin, a theater professor at the university and a Columbia City Council member.
When I visit – family history research apparently never ends – I won’t pass up the chance to see a Benton or a Bingham, but the stacks of books and microfilm will be the main draw.
“Archives really are our labs,” said Catherine Rymph, chair of the History Department at Mizzou.
She said the university is developing a minor in Missouri studies. I wouldn’t trade my days on campus for anything, but it would have been nice if they’d had that back then.
Oh well. The main thing is to keep looking forward, and this facility will help us do that.
Forgive me for bringing up again one of Truman’s more popular quotes: “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.” It’s true, and it’s worth remembering.
But it’s also true that invariably there’s more to the story than we remember, that life was as complex and challenging back in the day as it seems now, and that flesh-and-blood people – not the almighty hand of history – make the decisions that shape our world. It’s time to hit the stacks.
Jeff Fox is the editor of The Examiner. Reach him at 816-350-6365 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s on Twitter at @FoxEJC.