Museum at the Gateway Arch opens Tuesday with fresh exhibits, new entrance | St. Louis Public Radio

Museum at the Gateway Arch opens Tuesday with fresh exhibits, new entrance

Jun 28, 2018

Thirteen-year-old Makenna Farnsworth had just been to the top of the Gateway Arch.

“It’s really cool to be up there,” she said, looking back at the stainless-steel monument looming above her, gleaming in the hot sunshine.

And she knew the answer to the top Arch trivia question: How tall is it?

“Six-hundred-thirty feet!”

That sums up all Makenna knew about the iconic monument, which on Tuesday will open a revamped museum with all new exhibits.

It’s the final piece of the $380-million CityArchRiver project that began five years ago to spruce up the grounds of the national park.

Makenna and her grandmother, Kathy Bower, are from Williamsport, Pennsylvania. On a recent morning, they stood on the riverfront during a brief stop on their way to Colorado.

Bower, 66, appreciated the park’s new walking trails. She has multiple sclerosis and uses a cane to help her walk.

“I thought I'd have to just sit along the bench along the river here and watch it,’’ she said. “But there were ramps to get up there, and I could take my time.’’

Bower described the Arch as “awesome” but wanted to know more.

“Why did they build that?’’ she asked. “And what it has to do with everything.”

The answer to her question — Why is the Arch here? — is the focus of the Museum at the Gateway Arch, which replaces the old museum underneath the monument and explains the city’s role as Gateway to the West.

Maya Cameron and Lila, 10, look at a display while visiting the Museum at the Gateway Arch during a special tour for children from Variety the Children's Charity of St. Louis on June 18, 2018.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio


When Hubert Humphrey, then vice president, dedicated the Arch on May 25, 1968, he dubbed it “America’s magnificent monument” and compared it to the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, the Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln monuments in the nation’s capital and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

True to Humphrey’s prediction, the monument attracts visitors from around the world.

Like Bower’s family, about 85 percent of visitors live at least 50 miles from St. Louis, according to Bi-State Development, which operates ticketing at the monument.

The number of visitors to the Arch has fallen in recent years, particularly during the five-year construction period, according to the National Park Service. Just under 1.4 million people visited last year.

With the completion of the project, officials expect attendance to return to the 3 million mark, last reached in 2005.

A look that’s “fitting and special and grand”

The museum and visitor center is still underground, but its new entrance opens at ground level, similar to a walkout basement. A bank of windows lets daylight in and provides a panoramic view of the Old Courthouse across the land bridge that was constructed over Interstate 44 to connect the Arch with downtown St. Louis.

A worker takes a photo of the entrance to the Museum at the Gateway Arch as finishing touches are put on the museum on June 19, 2018.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

The entrance was planned to complement architect Eero Saarinen’s original vision for the soaring stainless-steel monument that’s commanded the St. Louis riverfront for 53 years, said Arch historian Bob Moore of the National Park Service.

“We wanted something that was fitting and special and grand,’’ Moore said. “And the materials they used — the stainless steel and glass — really helped to accentuate the older architecture of the Arch itself, which is frankly timeless.”

The old museum hadn’t been updated since it opened in 1976, Moore said. 

“Our old exhibits, I always felt, were a general history of the American West,’’ he said. “It's almost as though you could have picked up the museum, lock, stock and barrel, and put it on display anywhere in the American West. What we wanted to do was to personalize it.”

The museum occupies the same amount of space, but the exhibits are all new. They detail the city’s beginnings as a multicultural outpost for French colonial fur traders that would become a bustling riverport and the starting point for wagon trains heading west.

Children from Variety the Children's Charity of St. Louis visit the Museum at the Gateway Arch on June 18, 2018.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

In the colonial gallery, a full-sized vertical log house provides a glimpse of what it was like to live in St. Louis in the 1700s. The house was constructed without modern machinery by the historic preservation branch of the National Park Service.

The gallery devoted to the riverfront era takes dioramas to the next level with its intricate scale model of a five-block section of the city in 1852. 

Interactive displays explain topics like pioneer life and the mystique of the Old West.

The story of the Arch is also told, with exhibits on the sometimes-controversial history of the monument, the design contest won by Saarinen, and how fearless ironworkers stacked 142 stainless-steel triangles 630 feet into the sky.

Until this year, Gateway Arch National Park was known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. But despite the name change, Thomas Jefferson still gets his due in a gallery that explains the Louisiana Purchase and his vision of expanding the United States across the continent. But the exhibits also address the harsh realities of Manifest Destiny: The land Jefferson wanted to conquer was already populated by tribes of Native Americans.

“In his Indian relations, he had the idea, unfortunately, that Indians should be asked to leave the east and move west of the Mississippi River,’’ Moore said. “It started as a suggestion. Later in time under [President] Andrew Jackson, it became a command.’’

Natalie Scheers and Amber, 10, look at a display while visiting the Museum at the Gateway Arch during a special tour for children from Variety the Children's Charity of St. Louis on June 18, 2018.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

The museum has some special touches for St. Louis history buffs, including a façade of the Old Rock House, built of stones salvaged from the 1800s structure that was torn down to make room for the Arch. The stones were stored in the basement of the Old Courthouse, Moore said.

And there’s still a life-size buffalo, a popular exhibit in the old museum. But the taxidermy buffalo has been replaced with a resin version.

Renovation added space and accessibility

The new entrance adds about 46,000 square feet of multi-level space and will improve the flow of visitors through security, Moore said.

The museum and visitors center was designed to be accessible for people with disabilities, though the trams to the top remain inaccessible to people in wheelchairs.

People who can’t or don’t want to brave the tram ride to the top can get a sense of what it’s like up there in the “Keystone Exhibit” — a stainless-steel section like those used to build the Arch that has a live webcam feed from the observation deck.

The overhaul of the visitor center and museum cost $176 million. That’s nearly half of the total amount of the CityArchRiver project, which was a partnership of the National Park Service, the city of St. Louis and other private and public organizations. It was funded partly by tax dollars, including Proposition B, which was passed by city and county voters in 2013. The Gateway Arch Park Foundation, formerly the CityArchRiver Foundation, raised about $250 million in private donations.

On Wednesday, Fair Saint Louis — a Fourth of July tradition — returns to the Arch grounds, for the first time since all the construction began in August 2013.

The new entrance to the museum and visitors center at the Gateway Arch. June 18, 2018.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard