Smithsonian water exhibit visits Cape Girardeau

The Kellerman Foundation for Historic Preservation in Cape Girardeau is one of five museums in Missouri selected to house the traveling Smithsonian's Water/Ways exhibition. Located at 102 N. Main St. in Cape Girardeau, until Jan. 13, 2021. Bert Kellerman, above, stands before one of the four curving acrylic pieces.

Imagine living on a planet without water. In fact I couldn't.

The Smithsonian's Water/Ways exhibition is all about water -- an essential component of life on earth environmentally, culturally and historically, according to the Smithsonian Institution's website.

The Kellerman Foundation for Historic Preservation in Cape Girardeau is one of five museums in Missouri selected to house the traveling Smithsonian exhibit.

The Water/Ways exhibit is on display at Heritage Hall, located at 102 N. Main St. in Cape Girardeau, until Jan. 13, 2021.

Mary Ann Kellerman, co-founder of the Kellerman Foundation, said the traveling Smithsonian exhibit is "beautiful and sophisticated," consisting of four large, curving acrylic pieces. The exhibit includes interactive portions including iPads and activities.

"It's being delivered to us in segments, and we have to build it from the bottom up with these giant segments," Kellerman said of the exhibit. "It's extremely complex, and magnificent in appearance."

Kellerman said the Water/Ways exhibit takes a broad dive into water, and its relationship with humanity.

"I think we're just so used to turning on a tap and having water come out, we sometimes forget that hasn't always happened," MJ DeGraff, volunteer for the Kellerman Foundation, told B Magazine. "People forget that water is used in so many different ways -- it can be used in rituals, in baptisms; it sustains plant, animal and human life; it impacts our economy and our culture -- it's just an amazing substance."

Cape Girardeau has a long-standing history with water, which led Kellerman to apply for this exhibit, she said.

The Mississippi River has been formative in Cape Girardeau, Kellerman said, especially downtown. When Cape Girardeau first became a trading post in the mid-1700s, businesses were built along the river to provide for travelers on the Mississippi, which shows some resemblance to how downtown looks today.

The invention of the steamboat and related river trade stimulated the development of Cape Girardeau as the biggest port on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Memphis.

In 2015, a report coordinated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service noted the Mississippi River generated $405 billion and supported 1.3 million jobs. Many Southeast Missouri residents also share a close personal relationship with the Mississippi River.

"We live with millions and millions of gallons flowing right past us every single day, so I think it's appropriate that the exhibit is going to be right here in Cape next to the river," DeGraff said.

DeGraff said because the exhibit is going all over the country and tackles water in a broader sense, they wanted to incorporate local ties and encourage community participation.

The Kellerman Foundation is incorporating local rotating exhibits to accompany the main Water/Ways exhibit, Kellerman said.

There will be a small exhibit in a section of the museum about the Urbach family, a Cape Girardeau family that was closely connected to the Mississippi River for many generations through their work with Missouri barges.

Kellerman said the Cape River Heritage Museum and Glenn House have lent parts of their collections to the foundation for the exhibit.

DeGraff said they've also been able to make those local ties through different programming events, which they hope will peak interest in water and the exhibit.

One of the programming events will be an "exploratory learning" activity led by Brandy Hepler, instructor of elementary education at Southeast Missouri State University.

Kellerman said Hepler will conduct science experiments with terrariums and different erosion experiments with student teachers at the university. Then, the student teachers will go into the schools for student teaching and conduct those experiments with elementary school children.

Hepler will also demonstrate the science experiments at the Heritage Hall museum on certain weekends while the exhibit is up.

Kellerman said the foundation applied for the exhibit, which included a $2,500 grant, and were able to get it through a partnership of the Kellerman Foundation, the Missouri Humanities Council, and the Smithsonian Institution's traveling Museum on Main Street Program.

The Museum on Main Street Program consists of designing Smithsonian exhibitions specifically for use in small museum settings and rural communities.

"The Museum on Main Street's strategy is to link with local museums and give them elevated high-end exhibits, which I think contributes to the quality of exhibits that all museums in small towns will do," Kellerman said. "This is already giving us ideas on how to include more interactive things and possibilities for future exhibits."

For more information about upcoming exhibits through the Kellerman Foundation, call (573) 334-0097 or visit For more information about the Smithsonian's Museum on Main Street Program, visit

Neal Moore arrived on at the banks of the Mississippi in Cape Girardeau October 16. On an adventure of a lifetime, Moore is traversing 22 rivers and rowing more than 7,000 miles. A modern day Huck Finn, he is chronicling his trip for a book. Moree first launched his canoe on Feb. 9 in the Columbia river, planning to end his journey in the Upper Bay of the Hudson River around New Years 2022. You can follow his cross country canoe trip via instagram@riverjournalist.