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‘Crucial role’ of Church history in Missouri highlighted in $380 million Gateway Arch renovation

‘Crucial role’ of Church history in Missouri highlighted in $380 million Gateway Arch renovation

The Museum at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, has always told the story of westward expansion.

But until recently, visitors would have had little to no idea that pioneers who were members of the Church were a major part of that story.

National Park Service Historian Bob Moore said prior to the museum’s recent re-model, the only mentions of the history of the Church (such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre and Joseph Smith’s revelation) were “buried on bullet points” on their history wall, which summarized 100 years of history.

“I was very embarrassed by what we used to have,” Moore said. “A third, at least, of the people who made the westward journey were Mormons and all [the museum] used to talk about were the California and Oregon immigrants. So I felt that the balance was just completely wrong and that we weren’t telling a very important part of the story.”

After two years of construction, however, that story is now being told. The new Museum at the Gateway Arch will re-open to the public on July 3. The project came out of the Gateway Arch Park Foundation‘s $380 million renovation of the Arch grounds and surrounding areas and features multiple new exhibits about topics like the St. Louis riverfront, the Mexican-American War and the various groups that traveled west, including members of the Church.

What to look for

Moore said prior to the re-model, he would have characterized the museum as something that could have been erected anywhere in the American West because it was telling a general story.

The goal of the new museum, however, is communicating to visitors that the Arch as they know it today was not always how it existed. Rather, “it was the foundation point for the city, and it was once a part of the busy riverfront that was the third busiest port in the United States before the Civil War,” Moore said. “It was an embarkation point for so many people to make the westward journey, so those were ideas we wanted to get across to people, that the site itself was important and that it played a central role in the overall story of westward expansion.”

Historian Tom Farmer, who helped plan the new museum, said there are two parts to the museum’s history of the Church: one about the handcarts and the other about how the Mormon Trail changed after 1846 when the Saints left Nauvoo and went to Iowa.

He also said the history of the Church isn’t a specific exhibit in the new museum, but “it’s scattered through the museum. … You kind of see different spots in different areas about [Church members] .”

For example, when visitors walk in, they’ll see a running video featuring several clips of Mormon pioneers, which was filmed at Martin’s Cove and which the Church film department lent costumes to.

In particular, Farmer said members should go to the Manifest Destiny section for the open 1840 Nauvoo Book of Mormon (lent to the museum by the Church History Library) and replicas of “Deseret coins,” which show how the Saints had “their own little currency system for awhile.” The Manifest Destiny section also features photos or daguerreotypes of pioneers and their families, and a recording of various immigrant songs, including “Come, Come, Ye Saints.”

In addition, in the St. Louis Riverfront section, members should look for a “tactile handcart statue” for the visually impaired, as well as a photo of a replica of the odometer used by William Clayton to measure the distance between Winter Quarters to the Salt Lake Valley. This section also includes a map of the new Mormon Trail, with St. Louis as a way station starting in 1848.

What to learn

Farmer said he hopes Church members who visit the new museum realize the role St. Louis played in the Church’s immigration — about 22,000 Mormon pioneers came through St. Louis and stayed weeks, months or years before heading west to Utah.

“Even [members of the Church] don’t know the crucial role St. Louis played in Church history,” he said.

Moore hopes people know that, unlike other features at the Arch, the museum is free, which helps people experience the multiple stories and unique perspectives they’ve tried to include.

He also hopes visitors will see the pioneers’ story as commensurate with the story of the other trails, and that they’ll learn things in the museum that they haven’t learned other places.

“If people come in and they learn just one thing that they didn’t know before, I think we’ve done our job,” he said. “And in this new museum, I think they’ll learn a lot more than just one thing.”

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