The St. Louis Arch is an iconic monument and symbol in the United States, a celebration of frontiers, vision, and courage. But as I entered the museum (which is located underground, below the arch itself), I wondered what type of historical interpretation we would find. Because along with the spirit of adventure that “conquered the west” came injustices, massacres, and destruction for many of the native people and cultures that had existed for centuries. How would this be viewed in the saga of development?
The Museum at Gateway Arch features a large, walk-through timeline – complete with interactive displays and wonderful artifacts. The galleries divide the history into time periods: Colonial St. Louis, Jefferson’s Vision, New Frontiers, The Riverfront Era, Manifest Destiny, and Building The Dream. The information highlights the multi-cultural history and the clashes of civilizations in the American West. One particular hall highlights Missouri and St. Louis’s role in the American Civil War while also showing the simultaneous conflicts with Native Americans.
I appreciated the diverse approach to the regional history, and it helped me gain a better understanding of what was happening in the west leading up to the Civil War and during the 1860’s. You’ll find Civil War leaders – like John C. Fremont – who “opened” the west and had gained fame prior to the conflict. There are also some nice information panels about the Homestead Act of 1862, an important piece of legislation often overlooked because of bloody battles during the war. Several displays highlight the African American experience, and it was particularly interesting to learn about the freedmen moved west after the war, seeking a new life.
When I toured the museum, the ECW team was talking about a project for Native American history month, and I spent extra time examining the displays of artifacts, weapons, and clothing from the western plains. I don’t think I’d ever really had an opportunity to see such a nice collection and really have time to observe it. The beadwork, feathers, leather design is stunningly beautiful, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to see and appreciate it.
One panel display shows a beautiful sunrise over a Native American village. The museum designers overlayed real photographs of natives in front of the scene, making it look like they are on the verge of either vanishing into the scene or waiting to step forward. This display is boldly labeled: Land Worth Fighting For.
I’ve started gaining a better appreciation for the 1860’s history beyond the “traditional Civil War” and if you’ll seeking for a good museum that offers a balanced look at the melting pot and clash of cultures that is part of the American West story, the Museum at Gateway Arch is a good place to get an overview. The Civil War is certainly part of that story and is highlighted nicely, but there are always two, three…maybe more side to the story.
Museum at Gateway Arch (National Park Service)
11. North 4th Street, St. Louis, MO 63102
Call or check the website for admission, hours, and further details.