Springfield, MO

Log in Subscribe
Sean FitzGibbons is the executive director of History Museum on the Square, a leadership role he started in September.
Sean FitzGibbons is the executive director of History Museum on the Square, a leadership role he started in September.

Executive Insider: Sean FitzGibbons

History Museum’s new chief settles into community

Posted online

On a professional journey that’s taken him to four states in nearly a decade, Sean FitzGibbons is getting accommodated with his new home in the Queen City.

Some of that work over the past few months has involved educating himself on the history of Springfield and Greene County. It’s an understandable action to tackle as the new executive director of History Museum on the Square Inc. He began the leadership position in September after a national search was conducted by the museum’s board of trustees.

FitzGibbons succeeded interim leader Charlotte McCoy, who returned to her role as business manager of the museum. Her interim position began in July after Executive Director Katie Turer resigned after four months in the post to move to Kentucky.

“It just made a lot of sense for us to come to Springfield, especially with an opportunity like this with this museum,” FitzGibbons says. “There is this long history of the museum but at the same time, it’s a new building and reintroducing itself to Springfield. It’s telling stories of what it is in this new capacity, which I’m really excited about.”

Born in St. Louis and raised in San Antonio, Texas, FitzGibbons has around 10 years of experience as a leader of museums and nonprofits. Previous roles include senior exhibits analyst for the city of San Antonio’s Department of Arts and Culture, executive director of the Meadows Museum of Art at Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana, and executive director for Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park & Museum in Hamilton, Ohio.

FitzGibbons most recently lived in St. Louis with his wife, Amber, and two children, daughter Maggie and son Elliott, and was curator at the William and Florence Schmidt Art Center on the campus of Southwestern Illinois College. However, he says the distance from their extended family – particularly through the COVID-19 pandemic – weighed heavily in their decision to move to the Ozarks.

“We did want to get back closer to family,” FitzGibbons says, noting his wife has southwest Missouri roots, while he has family in Missouri and Texas. “Springfield is only a day drive from my parents and we’re back here near her parents.”

The History Museum’s downtown home is a relatively new one.

Previously located in Historic City Hall at Chestnut Expressway and Boonville Avenue, the History Museum relocated in August 2019 to 154 Park Central Square following a five-year, $12 million renovation project. Museum officials purchased the now 107-year-old former Barth’s Clothing Store in 2008 for $800,000 via donations. The project included rebuilding windows and the sign atop the building, adding a mezzanine and digging an elevator shaft in the basement.

Among the museum’s six permanent galleries in the roughly 18,000-square-foot building are exhibits on Route 66, the “Wild Bill” Hickok shootout on the square and local stories during the Civil War. However, FitzGibbons says the museum didn’t get to welcome as many visitors as desired in its first year opened due to the pandemic. It was temporarily closed for two of its first 10 months in operation downtown. When it reopened in late May 2020, occupancy was limited for several months.

FitzGibbons estimates the museum will connect with nearly 20,000 people this year, noting that includes up to 16,000 for admission or tours. The remainder is via its education program, he says, as the museum staff goes out into the community, including schools, homeschool groups and assisted living facilities, to share history lessons.

“The History Museum has one of the largest collections of historical documents and archives in southwest Missouri. What we do is share that collection with the community and make it available,” he says. “We are very much focused on telling the story, the narrative of Springfield and Greene County, from the indigenous first nation all the way through Route 66 to today.”

Among his goals, FitzGibbons wants to grow attendance and the annual budget, which was $734,000 in 2020, according to its most recent 990 form on file with the IRS. He says the pandemic likely has kept some people away from experiencing the museum, noting his desire is to double attendance within 18 months.

“Let’s see if we can do it,” he says, adding it’s a struggle these days to get people’s attention. “Our competition isn’t other museums. It’s Netflix; it’s Disney+, as our competition is getting people off the couch and into the museum and offering these experiential programs and presentations.”

That kind of viewpoint was one of the reasons FitzGibbons was hired among three finalists, says History Museum on the Square Board of Trustees member Tom Peters. Museum officials say there were 17 applicants.

Peters says FitzGibbons’ breadth of experience for what he terms cultural memory organizations, such as art and history museums, made him the right selection. He says FitzGibbons also recognizes the need to engage the community in and outside the building with interactive exhibits.

“That can be everything from talking to different groups, making presentations,” Peters says. “There are so many demands on our attention today that you have to get out there and just convey your message over and over again. A big part of it is persistence.”

History Museum on the Square also is among those utilizing technology to help tell its story to visitors, he says.

“They’re using more electronic stuff, more hands-on kinds of things,” Peters says. “It’s not just objects in glass cases.”

The museum incorporates technology, such as touchscreens and a steam train replica outfitted with monitors and an interactive game. The building also includes a “time machine” installed within a trolley car replica that recounts dozens of events in Springfield history, including the cobra scare in 1953 and info on Hollywood star and former resident Brad Pitt, says FitzGibbons.

“When I took my kids to see it and they got in it, they were just so excited to learn,” he says. “Their faces light up within an educational history exhibit. That’s why that’s my favorite.”

A new temporary exhibit coming in February is courtesy of a $20,000 diversity, equity and inclusion grant awarded last month by the Community Foundation of the Ozarks Inc. Community Cornerstones, which focuses on the history of African American schools and Black educators in Springfield during segregation, is set to run through April.

“That grant was fantastic because that money is going to touch all aspects of what we do at the museum,”  FitzGibbons says, adding staff also plan to create a new traveling show and curriculum based on the exhibit and upgrade its African American traveling trunk, which includes objects, documents and lesson plans for teachers or homeschool groups to display for students.

An expansive military uniform collection from local architect Thom Lundberg also is on tap to showcase in a military service exhibit next summer.

Noting the pandemic’s impact on visitation, FitzGibbons is determined for the museum to be a community connector for downtown and beyond.

“We are just now getting to the point where we are able to tell Springfield what we are, who we are and get our message out of what it is that we do,” he says.


No comments on this story |
Please log in to add your comment
Editors' Pick
From the Ground Up: iTooth Family Dentistry

The iTooth Family Dentistry facility under development in south Springfield is centered on patient care.

Most Read
Update cookies preferences