Like the tip of an iceberg, the glimmering Gateway Arch rises above the St. Louis skyline and captures your attention, but underneath, an expanded and redesigned museum looms large, telling the story of the city and America’s westward expansion like never before.
Starting with a beautiful new glass entryway that filters natural light into the museum under the monument, the world-class museum illuminates the history of St. Louis and the pioneering spirit of America with a mix of artifacts and highly interactive exhibits. Opening on July 3 just in time for Fair Saint Louis — which returns to the riverfront after four years in Forest Park — the updated museum is the final piece of a massive multi-year project that has transformed the Arch grounds, adjoining riverfront, and downtown areas.
Completed in 1965, the 630-foot-tall Arch was built to commemorate Thomas Jefferson and the role St. Louis played in the expansion of the fledgling nation during the 19th century as pioneers headed west. In a nod to Jefferson, the national monument was first called the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial but was recently renamed the Gateway Arch National Park.
Tram rides to the top of the Arch opened in 1967, and the museum underneath opened about a decade later. Since then, however, the museum had undergone very few changes and its exhibits had not kept pace with today’s museum storytelling that is heavily dependent on technology and multimedia.
“The vision for the modern-day museum experience is participatory, interactive, and thought-provoking,” said Rhonda Schier, chief of Museum Services and Interpretation at the Gateway Arch National Park, adding that the new museum’s exhibits accomplish all that and more.
The new experience starts at the circular entryway situated between the legs of the Arch. Approximately 70,000 cubic yards of earth were removed to make way for the new entrance and more than 45,000 square feet of additional gallery space, which augments the existing 100,000 square feet. The narrow ramps near the legs of the iconic monument that once served as entry and exit will become exits only.
Shortly after entering, visitors overlook a terrazzo floor on the mezzanine level that features a monumental map of westward trails from St. Louis, a fitting introduction to the museum that focuses on movement — in covered wagons, on the railroad, aboard riverboats, and more.
Once inside the museum, visitors travel from the mid-1700s to the opening of the Arch. Six themed areas include innovative and interactive exhibits that trace the story of Native Americans, explorers, pioneers, and rebels who made America what it is today.
In the Colonial Area, visitors discover the indigenous and Creole culture of St. Louis before the Louisiana Purchase. A highlight is a 15-foot by 15-foot French Colonial cabin constructed with hand-hewn vertical logs. Two sides are completed and two sides are open so visitors can see how it was constructed. Nearby, a French pirogue is set against a river scene, and guests can climb in the canoe to take a selfie as if they were traveling on the river.
The Jefferson’s Vision and Manifest Destiny sections examine the country’s belief that it had a God-given right to expand. Visitors can discover how St. Louis shaped the West and learn not only about settlers and the western trails, but about the perspective of the indigenous people whose lives were altered forever.
Visitors learn about the history of steamboats, railroads, and industrial growth in the Riverfront Era and New Frontiers galleries. Guests will be drawn to the Riverfront Levee exhibit, a five-block scale model of what downtown St. Louis looked like in 1852. Crafted from 3-D printers, the highly detailed diorama features buildings, people, livestock, cargo, and steamboats. Through extensive research, historians made sure each building in the model was the right color and had the correct number of floors.
And in the Building the Arch section, visitors will learn about the architectural competition that resulted in the engineering marvel that Eero Saarinen designed. The trip through the gallery and the entire museum merges seamlessly with the journey up into the Arch and provides a coherent context for seeing St. Louis, the Mississippi River, and the view to the West.