Current exhibit at the Missouri History Museum, produced by the Teens Make History program, delves into the history of the contentious St. Louis question -- "Where did you go to high school?" -- and emerges with a deeper account of the high school experience.
If there is one thing all St. Louisans have in common it's the famous "St. Louis question." We've all been asked, "Where did you go to high school?" probably more than our fair share of times. The St. Louis question is rooted in a myriad of stereotypes; the answer supposedly says something specific about our religious and political affiliations, wealth, and even intelligence. For many St. Louisans, the question has transformed into a statement that asks about so much more than just the name of a school. For others, the question is simply a way to form connections. The Missouri History Museum's current installation -- Where Did You Go to High School? -- explores the history and weight of that infamous seven-word question. Instead of posing the question to highlight social divides among St. Louisans, the exhibit investigates the question in order to uncover a shared history, forging connections between city residents along threads of common high school experiences.
And who better to talk about high schools than high schoolers themselves? Since May 2015, the Teens Make History exhibitors have worked alongside Museum staff to curate and design the entire exhibit. Established in 2007, the Teens Make History program is a work-based learning program at the Museum that places a focus on the development of communication, research, writing, and confidence skills in underserved local high school students. Where Did You Go to High School? is only the second exhibit to be produced entirely by teens at the Museum and the program is the recipient of the 2014 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award.
The gallery installation largely focuses on memories of high school in St. Louis captured on camera, including historic photographs of school buildings, portraits of notable teachers, and snapshots of all the fun times of high school dominate the atrium. One feature highlights the architectural diversity of St. Louis schools, noting that the variance in building design reflects particular cultural values of the surrounding neighborhood. An entire wall of the gallery is dedicated to high school traditions, extracurricular activities, and -- a St. Louis favorite -- sports. The gallery takes the viewer back to the high-energy crowd at a 1971 Vashon vs. Rockhurst high school basketball game, to a May Day ceremony at Visitation Academy, and even to Coyle High School prom, perhaps the most iconic (and anticipated) high school experience. The exhibit also offers a chance to examine Prom (1947-1973), a magazine published just for St. Louis high school students that spread local high school gossip and inside jokes, advertised school events, and showed off students' latest accomplishments.
While the magazine is notorious as the reputed founder of the St. Louis question, its roots actually reach all the way back to the beginning of St. Louis high schools. In fact, high school has been a question on the minds of many St. Louisans throughout our city's history. The exhibit explores the various debates over education that St. Louis citizens have been engaging in over the past 150 years. In one 1877 St. Louis Post Dispatch article, the author questioned whether taxpayers should even support public education. "Should the High School be abolished?" the headline asked. In an interactive portion of the exhibition, visitors are invited to guess the year various newspaper headlines debating education appeared in print. As it turns out, for instance, St. Louis principals have been urging parents not to allow their students to drive to school since the 1920s.
In the spirit of any great high school, the exhibit offers lots of ways for museumgoers to be involved. Visitors can write the name of their high schools on a chalkboard, share their most memorable high school experiences in a composition notebook, and even test their knowledge by taking an 1854 high school entrance examination. On one wall, the exhibit asks if the answer to the St. Louis question defines who we are as individuals, inviting visitors to post their response on a sticky note. One visitor captured the essence of the exhibit perfectly: "It is a part of who I am, but it does not define what my life is like."
Where Did You Go to High School? raises important questions about stereotypes in and about St. Louis, debunking the myths of our city's schools by highlighting the experiences of high school that we all share. The exhibit leaves visitors with the feeling that high school is about so much more than a short answer to a loaded question. It's about the influence of dedicated teachers, the community of classmates, and the memories of hard work and great times.
Where Did You Go to High School? is open now through July 17 in the Bank of America Atrium at the Missouri History Museum. To accompany the gallery installation, the Teens Make History Players wrote an original play based on their own high school experiences. "Where Did You Go to High School?" is performed every Saturday morning at 11:30 am through April in the Currents gallery of the Museum.