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What's your Arch story? History Museum exhibit invites perspectives on the icon

If you visit the new “Arch Perspectives”exhibit at the Missouri History Museum, take the time to read the story cards written by St. Louisans about the iconic riverfront monument. The personal thoughts range from joyful to angry:

“The first time I went up in the Arch I felt like I could see everything.”

“I remember when officials came to our school and took our signatures to put in the Arch’s keystone.  I was 8 years old.”

“Gateway to misgovernment and systemic racism is a more appropriate description of this concoction."

The exhibit opens Saturday in the atrium of the museum. Though the display space is compact, it covers a lot of the Arch’s back story:

* Political wrangling: The development and construction of the Jefferson Expansion National Memorial took more than 30 years and was controversial from the get-go. The bond issue passed by St. Louis voters in 1935 promised thousands of jobs -- but required tearing down 37 blocks of homes and businesses through eminent domain.

* Social impact: Business owners and residents, many of them African American, were displaced from the memorial site, and historic buildings were razed. The emptied ground would become a riverfront parking lot for years while the project was held up by World War II and the lack of federal funding.

* Discrimination: The promise of jobs was unequal, as symbolized by the 1964 demonstration by activist Percy Green and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Green and a companion scaled a leg of the unfinished Arch to protest the discriminatory hiring practices of the project's construction companies. In 1966, white laborers walked off the job after African-American contractors were hired to work on the visitors center.

* A modern wonder: When completed, the Arch stood as a monument not only to westward expansion but to the can-do spirit of post-World War II America.

"Our imperfect home" 

Katie Van Allen, managing director of museum services, says the exhibit was an opportunity to share the background of the Arch. 

“It's a multifaceted story,'' she said. "You can talk about everything from it being a symbol of pride to St. Louisans to the sort of contentiousness that was a part of its construction.’’ 

“Arch Perspectives” was developed as a partnership between the history museum and the museum studies program of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Ten graduate students, working under the direction of Maris Boyd Gillete, a museum studies professor, researched and developed the content for the exhibit.

The students also gathered the personal stories. They distributed story cards at the history museum and at events around the city throughout the summer. They also used social media.

The goal was to include diverse voices of all ages, said Sam Moore, now a graduate of the UMSL program, who worked on the project.

The opening statement to the exhibit says the Arch is "where we debate who we are, what we believe in, and what we want our city to be. It's our playground and our pride. The Arch is St. Louis, our imperfect home."

Moore said the Arch's architecture and engineering are staggering, but the students wanted to give visitors more than spectacular photos of the 630-foot stainless steel monument.

“And it’s a beautiful piece on our riverfront,'' he said. "But what we ended up deciding is that we wanted to get away from the beautiful skyline and some of the sheer numbers and the facts of the engineering and look at what it really means to the people of St. Louis.”

Moore said the work isn’t over -- the conversation about the Arch will continue on Twitterand Facebook, and people can complete story cards at the exhibit.

Opening events for “Arch Perspectives”:

The events are free and open to the public.

Saturday: 10:30 a.m, MacDermott Grand Hall. Children’s author Amanda E. Doyle will share her book “To the Top! A Gateway Arch Story.’’ The program, which includes a Gateway Arch craft, is designed for children, ages 3 to 8, but all ages are welcome

Sunday: 1 p.m., AT&T Foundation Multipurpose Room. St. Louis author Jim Merkel will discuss his book “Making of an Icon: The Dreamers, the Schemers, and the Hard Hats Who Built the Gateway Arch."

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.