By KERRY SMITH, Editor, St. Louis Construction News & Review Magazine
With the official grand opening of the Museum at the Gateway Arch just days away, Variety the Children’s Charity of St. Louis summer camp youth ages 10-16 and their counselors gained a sneak peek.
Nearly 60 youths – each with a physical or developmental disability – tried out the newly rebuilt museum.
Rhonda Schier, chief of museum services and interpretation for the National Park Service, began the special preview by speaking to the children as they sat cross-legged atop the largest terrazzo floor map ever designed and built in the U.S.
“Providing the resources for visitors to make personal and meaningful connections to the story of St. Louis is our mission,” Schier later said. “The concept of the modern museum experience is one of interactivity, participation personal exploration, analysis and evaluation.”
Just inside the museum’s entrance, enormous video footage depicts St. Louis’ historic eras. Children with sensory deprivation and others stood behind streaming video of buffalo herds to join the big-screen story in silhouette. Those with auditory disabilities were drawn in by crisp audio throughout the exhibit areas.
Those in wheelchairs and others led by a counselor’s hand worked their way through interactive exhibits that portray a close-up look at six distinct periods in Westward Expansion history. Larger-than-life etched images of Native Americans, early pioneers and a special dedication to Eero Saarinen, the Gateway Arch’s internationally acclaimed designer and competition winner, caught their attention. Kids ran their hands along the surfaces of a 15-foot-by-15-foot, hand-built cedar log structure depicting St. Louis’ 18th century French Colonial history.
A five-block scale model with more than 500 hand-painted figures in it depicting what St. Louis’ rebuilt downtown riverfront looked like in 1852 drew kids in, as did a life-size, hand-carved wooden keelboat that invited visitors to climb aboard. Fitting with the museum’s accessibility goals, a cutout section of the boat also enabled wheelchair-bound children to experience what it must have been like to travel in such a vessel.
Floor-to-ceiling original artwork captivated Variety campers, as did graphics, large-print raised and braille lettering, videos and 3-D, audio descriptors and touchable exhibits depicting much of the city’s formative years and its pioneering spirit. Rather than being restricted to wheeling a chair parallel to an exhibit in order to appreciate it, wheeled visitors are able to approach directly, positioning themselves within a nook designed to accommodate a wheelchair.
Jean Larson Steck, communications director for Variety the Children’s Charity of St. Louis, said the intricate design and construction of the new Museum at the Gateway Arch truly makes experiencing St. Louis’ rich history available and accessible to everyone.
“Ranger Rhonda and the entire team have been passionate about making this resource approachable and enjoyable by all,” said Steck. “Traditionally museums were designed or retrofitted with accessibility to enable visitors merely to gain entry. With this new museum, every single exhibit is fully accessible and enjoyable for anyone with any type of limitation,” she added. “And what’s really interesting is to see all individuals experiencing each exhibit by touching, regardless of whether they have a disability or not. The ability for our children and many others to gain a tactile understanding of an object – rather than seeing it behind glass – presents an enriched opportunity for them to experience and learn.
“We all know of President Abraham Lincoln’s nose at the entrance to his tomb in Springfield, how visitors have rubbed it to a glossy shine for good luck,” Steck said. “It will be intriguing to discover what’s going to be the touchpoint of this magnificent new museum.”