Right Under Your Nose

“I’ve never been to that museum on campus.”

“Which one?”

“That one with the famous paintings.”

I knew the one my daughter meant, and I offered an excuse: “The man who lives at the base of the mountain is the last to climb it.” It’s an old proverb, highlighting our tendency to neglect our most famous next-door icons.

For the record, Mizzou has several great museums. Among them are a craft studio gallery, the George Caleb Bingham Gallery, the Missouri Historic Costume and Textile Collection, the Museum of Art and Archaeology and the Museum of Anthropology. There’s even a bug museum, with 6 million specimens of insects, arachnids and fossils (Enns Entomology Museum).

But she was talking about The State Historical Society of Missouri, home to Order No. 11, a lightning rod for emotions during the Civil War, depicting Union General Ewing’s command to expel every resident of four western Missouri counties believed sympathetic to the Confederacy.

Sometimes we get in a rut. I know Jeff City natives who still haven’t gone to the Missouri State Capitol to see one of the single most valuable works of art in the Midwest. Great world museums would give whole wings to possess the Thomas Hart Benton murals in the House Lounge.

There are Benton works at The State Historical Society, too. In fact, you’re within minutes of the “nation’s best collection of Missouri regional and westward expansion art,” including one of the largest collections of Bingham paintings.

The State Historical Society is nearly hidden in a lower corner of Ellis Library on the Mizzou campus. Its entrance is easily overlooked, but like other tiny entrances — Mark Twain Cave, the Egyptian pyramids — it opens into mind-expanding displays.

It’s in a bit too cozy of a spot, if you ask most staffers. The Society’s collections are extensive, and growing, and the staff looks forward to moving into new digs on the fringe of downtown as early as 2019 — a proposed 100,000-square-foot, 3-story structure at Locust and Elm Streets, overlooking Peace Park. They’ll even have underground parking.

Meantime, staff members focus on promoting a grand commemoration for the year 2021, when Missouri celebrates its 200th birthday.

We’re lucky to live in a town that shows so much attention to culture. And, yes, like the old man at the base of the mountain, we can feel a bit guilty for not taking the kids to see the treasures.

Years ago, my friend John Moseley bought me a Christmas gift, a subscription to the Missouri Historical Review. That single gift has been a quarterly catalyst to climb the proverbial mountain I live at the base of and discover stories about Missouri.

The Review is just a peek into The Society’s vast holdings. Beyond the art displays, dig deeper into hundreds of collections — art, photographs, newspapers, manuscripts “and oral histories telling the story of Missouri’s history, people and culture.” For the research collections, strict rules governing access help preserve and protect these artifacts. (Some readers will remember that in 2011 the museum hallways suffered a senseless arson attack.) To view manuscripts, for example, you’ll need to sign in and give up your ink pens, taking only a pencil into the research area. But the museum and gift shop are easily accessible to the public.

You may opt to wait until The Society shifts to its new location. Meantime, the old digs await with priceless art and some unique gift ideas right under your nose.

(While you’re in the gift shop, do some early holiday shopping. Look for Robinson’s books.)

More of John Robinson’s favorites are at www.johndrakerobinson.com/blog.