‘Profoundly sad’: Missouri museum staff defended LGBT exhibit to superiors, emails show

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Missouri State Museum employees anticipated an LGBT history exhibit at the state Capitol would prove controversial and defended the display to higher-level state officials after lawmakers began asking questions, emails obtained by The Star show.

In the hours before a top official at the Department of Natural Resources ordered the installation’s removal, museum director Tiffany Patterson wrote that she was trying to “build a team of Bada$$ coworkers to hold the division and department’s feet to the fire if this goes south.”

“If we want to be inclusive, we need to practice what we preach,” Patterson wrote to a Missouri State Parks colleague at 11:21 a.m. on Sept. 1.

But the exhibit’s perch in the Capitol didn’t last until the end of the day.

The exhibit’s removal from the Capitol’s first floor museum space — and subsequent relocation to another state building blocks away — spurred a swift backlash from Democrats, gay lawmakers and museum and history advocates. Gov. Mike Parson and officials in his administration have stuck to the decision even as at least one group has raised the possibility of suing.

The Star obtained a trove of DNR emails through a records request that detail how officials within the department scrambled to address the mounting controversy. The department oversees the Missouri State Parks, which includes the Missouri State Museum in Jefferson City. A flurry of messages show museum employees expressing private disappointment as it became clear the exhibit’s place in the Capitol would fall victim to Republican objections after being on display for only four days.

The exhibit, called “Making History,” traces the role Kansas City played in the gay rights movement decades ago. It was developed in 2016 by a history class at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and has been displayed in several locations since 2017.

In a Sept. 2 email to a UMKC archives curator, Patterson wrote that the day before she had been told to take down the exhibit by the deputy director of DNR. Patterson didn’t identify the official by name and it’s not clear which official made the call. The department has two deputy directors, Katie Jo Wheeler and Mike Sutherland.

The removal came just half a day after Patterson wrote to her superior, deputy Missouri State Parks director Brian Stith, to explain the exhibit’s installation after Stith received an inquiry from Rep. Ann Kelley, a Lamar Republican and secretary of the House Majority Caucus.

The Parson administration has publicly explained the removal by citing requirements for exhibits to receive approval from the Board of Public Buildings, an obscure body consisting of the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. Meeting minutes show the board hasn’t approved exhibits in at least the past nine years.

In the emails, Patterson’s superiors make no mention of the Board of Public Buildings.

On Sep. 1, Kelley wrote DNR’s director of policy and legislative affairs, Rich Germinder, “I was hoping you could explain to me the reasoning of having the gay rights banners hung up in the state museum at the Capitol?”

By then, legislative assistant Uriah Stark had already complained on Facebook that the installation was “pushing the LGBT agenda” with “in-your-face banners.” The Missouri Independent has reported that Kelley and another lawmaker, Adrian Republican Rep. Patricia Pike, also wrote Parson’s office that the display was inappropriate for children touring the Capitol.

Stith, deputy State Parks director, forwarded Kelley’s email inquiry to Patterson. She wrote back that the museum “strives to fulfill its mission of telling Missouri stories” and that the Capitol “is a place that purports to welcome diverse political ideas.”

“These stories can inform, enlighten and inspire,” Patterson wrote. “They can also introduce the history and perspectives of fellow citizens that might make some visitors uncomfortable.”

Stith thanked Patterson for the “quick and thorough response” and promised to try to visit the museum the next day.

“Don’t read anything into my visit other than it sounds like an interesting exhibit and I need to make sure I visit with you and your staff on a more regular basis,” he wrote.

Kelley also called DNR that afternoon with concerns about the exhibit, the emails show. It was removed that evening. A DNR spokeswoman told Parson’s office of the removal beforehand, the Independent reported.

The next morning, Patterson emailed museum staff about the removal, writing she was told there may be an alternative location for the exhibit, but “for now it is tucked away, out of sight.”

“This makes me profoundly sad,” she wrote. “I remain committed to pushing the line forward so that we can tell authentic stories about all of Missouri’s people.”

In a separate email to Stuart Hinds, the UMKC archives curator, Patterson wrote that she was ordered to take down the exhibit by a DNR deputy director. Hinds wrote back that there was “lots of flurry at this end” but didn’t elaborate.

UMKC has been silent on the removal, leading some involved in the exhibit’s creation to criticize the university. The university hasn’t responded to multiple requests for comment over the past week.

The records show that one museum employee drafted an explanation for the removal that said that one visitor “took personal offense” to the exhibit and began contacting legislators and demanding its removal. “Many of the legislators agreed and put pressure on the higher-ups in State Parks,” the draft said.

Patterson responded that the explanation was “maybe too much information.”

John Cunning, who retired in 2018 after overseeing the Missouri State Museum for a quarter century, said no exhibit was ever pulled during his time at the museum.

But the museum has confronted sensitive topics and items. He said the museum once displayed a Ku Klux Klan robe from the early 20th century as part of an exhibit marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

“We discussed that a lot,” Cunning said, adding that he spoke with the leadership of the Legislative Black Caucus at the time. “When we know something’s going to be controversial, the staff was very thorough about walking through a process to involve the people who might be concerned or might want input.”

For traveling exhibits, like “Making History,” a team of museum employees decides whether to try to bring the display to the Capitol, Cunning said. The museum then reaches an agreement with the exhibit owner over how long the exhibit will be up, how it will be transported, security and other items, he said.

Records show Hinds on Aug. 20 signed a memorandum of understanding with state museum curator Sophie Grus for the museum to display the traveling “Making History” exhibit.

The agreement specifically stated the exhibit would be displayed from Aug. 23 through Dec. 26 in a first-floor hall of the State Capitol, a part of the state museum, which is run by Missouri State Parks.

On Aug. 27, museum curator Katherine Owens wrote to other staff to notify them of exhibit changes in the hall, including the “Making History” installation.

“If the public has any questions, comments or concerns about the topic of this exhibit please feel free to direct them to Tiffany or Kate,” Owens wrote.

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