Gateway Arch museum provides great history lesson

Photos by Jeff Roberson/Associated Press
Visitors use a new entrance to the Gateway Arch as the Old Courthouse and the rest of downtown St. Louis are seen through its windows in June. A newly expanded museum underneath the Arch opened on July 3 and is the final piece of a massive $380 million renovation of the grounds surrounding and entrance to the iconic monument.

By GREG ECKERLE
Special to The Herald

The recently revamped and expanded museum below the Gateway Arch in St. Louis offers a no-holds-barred look at history, a view not sanitized to make us look and feel better. And it challenges visitors to think how they would have decided in similar circumstances.

While the museum focuses on the westward expansion of the United States, it also covers the entire growth of our nation, beginning with the French and Indian War and the American Revolution.

The huge space has many interactive features to entice all ages, explanatory and visually-appealing exhibits, and poses thought-provoking questions and quotes.

For instance, one question emblazoned on a wall near the entrance sets the tone: Is acquiring land through warfare justified? Nearby is a quote from Ulysses S. Grant regarding the Mexican-American War: “I was bitterly opposed to the war as one of the most unjust ever waged.” Another quote in 1848 from a U.S. Congressman termed it “a war unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President.”

Yet, the exhibit notes that in the mid-1800s, many Americans thought the U.S. had a God-given right, called manifest destiny, to expand west to the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine today a nation that wouldn’t stretch from sea to shining sea.

The sun rises over the Gateway Arch and its new entrance below this summer in St. Louis.

Fascinating historical tidbits are everywhere. One is that if Napolean hadn’t needed money to fight a war in Europe, we might be part of France today. Another is the tale of the cow that started a war in 1854 near Fort Laramie.

Many visitors lingered silently at the unsettling parts of the exhibit, which covered the oppression of rights for women, American Indians and blacks.

The outright taking of Indian lands is well-chronicled. Over 500 treaties were made between the U.S. government and American Indians. All were broken. The question facing the Indians: sign a treaty, or stand and fight? They ultimately lost either way. Tribes were continually forced to move. Several video interviews of current American Indians can be viewed, including one wearing a Korean War Veteran hat. The irony is inescapable: He proudly fought for us, no matter how his ancestors were treated.

Why did so many brave the dangers of going West? Because there was plenty of fertile land for free, offering a chance to start over in life. Some were simply seeking freedom, or to escape creditors.

One interactive game revealed some challenges pioneers faced — running out of supplies, sicknesses, brutal weather. Yet they kept coming.

A statue of Thomas Jefferson is seen as workers put the finishing touches on an exhibit inside the remodeled museum at the Gateway Arch in June in St. Louis.

There are also plenty of proud moments commemorated in the museum. Included are the vision of Thomas Jefferson, the courage of the pioneers, the historic Lewis and Clark Expedition, and the building of the grand St. Louis Gateway Arch. Intriguing artifacts from the Old West are displayed throughout the space.

On the lighter side, there are fun facts shared about railroads and steamboats, an authentic stagecoach, a recreated old-time house, a covered wagon surrounded by various supplies, a rendition of what it was like to live in a tepee and an animated exhibit of railroads’ effect on people. 

One exhibit sign summed it up: The West Was Won, or, The West Was Stolen. The visitor gets to decide.

In the end, the museum provides a great history lesson, filling in lots of gaps in some history books. It’s commendable that the facts are not sugar-coated. And to top it off, admission is free.

 

Freelance writer Greg Eckerle, who retired as communication director for the Sisters of St. Benedict of Ferdinand, can be reached at gregeckerle@twc.com.




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