A Tour of the Arch’s Brand-New Historical Museum

 In Culture, Feature

One component of the extensive $380-million renovation of the Arch grounds in St. Louis is the corresponding Museum at the Gateway Arch, which explores the meaning behind the city’s crown architectural and cultural jewel and opened to the public on July 3, 2018, after construction that took more than three years.

Led by acclaimed British designer Bill Haley, the museum’s outdated focus on singular historical perspectives instead focuses its efforts on inclusive, even conflicting narratives, many of which are often glossed over, or left out entirely of typical history books.

The new exhibition also explores the specific relevance of St. Louis’ role in westward expansion, as Samantha Fisher, communications director at the Gateway Arch Park Foundation, notes. “Prior to this renovation, the museum that was here could really have been placed anywhere along the Mississippi River to tell this story. This adds an additional 101 years of history and really explains why St. Louis is so important during each time period,” she says.

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To encompass the zeitgeist of each historical period, Haley and the team created a chronological experience for viewers with six “hubs,” beginning in the colonial period in the 18th century, when the area was settled. The hubs covered are titled “Colonial St. Louis,” “Manifest Destiny,” “New Frontiers,” “Jefferson’s Vision,” “Riverfront Era” and “Building the Arch.”

Museum-goers can begin by walking into the first hub, which contains images, video, artifacts, sound accompaniment and even a replica of a colonial-era home. Each of the six hubs contains a similar expression of history, representing key events and experiences that defined the time. “That way, it feels as though you’re walking through history,” says Haley, who explains that while the six hubs work chronologically, they are also fully functioning individually. Glass walls mark where the original museum began, and much of what we’re walking around in now was previously dirt.

When asked about how the team landed on the idea of six hubs, executive director Eric Moraczewski quips, “A dart board!” before discussing the variety of intentional touches used to help viewers connect with historic material from lifetimes ago.

“About 1200 people lived here in 1797, and the details are situated so people can flow through the exhibit and feel how the village was at the time. The colonial-era home was built by our historic-preservation team with traditional tools, and the soundscape includes only French voices. That’s what they spoke at the time,” he says.

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The future “Manifest Destiny” gallery discusses the settlers’ relationships with Native Americans and does not sugarcoat the resultant bloodshed. Visitors will also notice the strong emphasis on stories and points of view from minorities and women throughout the exhibit, whose voices often remain unheard in most traditional retellings of historic events. However, the “Manifest Destiny” hub in particular offers not one but three differing points about tensions between Native Americans and colonial settlers, showcasing the idea that history is not a static and rigid. Rather, it’s alive and greatly nuanced.

The story continues as the city’s population exploded in the 1800s and early 1900s, with a variety of original artifacts that connect to stories of historic St. Louisans and their various journeys. The chronological journey ends with a contemporary exploration of how the Arch came to be, through the whimsical, brilliant mind of Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen. And though the Arch didn’t open to the public until 1967, Saarinen’s design actually came to being through a contest in 1947—a contest the architect’s father mistakenly believed he had originally won (Eliel, his father—also a noted architect—was a finalist in the design competition).

Haley also hopes that his use of sound, landscape imagery and multi-faceted storytelling will encourage viewers to shift their perspectives upwards; literally. “We want people to look up, as the idea of going west was really aspirational. It’s a very simple idea, but one that we felt reflected the idea of what the entire museum is meant to be about. Going west for these people was almost like going into space. It was the complete unknown.”

Visitors will undoubtedly come away with a renewed excitement and appreciation for the city’s role in westward expansion and the stories of residents who came before.

All images courtesy of the Gateway Arch Park Foundation.

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