When I visited St Louis this past summer, I had the opportunity to visit the new Gateway Arch Museum, which showcases American history in the context of Manifest Destiny and the desire for westward expansion. In honor of the Gateway Arch’s 53rd birthday, here is my review of visiting the Gateway Arch Museum as a guest with vision impairment.
What is the Gateway Arch?
The Gateway Arch, also known as the St Louis Arch, is the world’s tallest arch and man-made monument in the western hemisphere, measuring 630 feet (192 meters) tall. It commemorates President Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a United States that stretched from sea to shining sea as well as the people who helped to make that vision a reality. It was unveiled on October 28, 1965, and still stands proudly in St Louis, Missouri. The Gateway Arch is silver in color and made of stainless steel.
The new redesign
After being redesigned to accommodate for the changing needs of museum guests, the new Gateway Arch Museum was opened to the public on July 3rd, 2018. One of the main design principles that was used in the redesign was the concept of universal design, also known as universal accessibility. A good example of universal design would be designing a ramp that people with and without mobility aids could use to enter a building. In the context of the museum, universal design ensures that people of all ages and ability levels are able to navigate and access information inside the museum exhibits with ease. Read more about visiting museums with vision impairment here.
I was able to get to the grounds of the Gateway Arch easily using a rideshare service, though I remember having to walk a fairly short distance in order to get to the museum area. There are also public transport options for people who wish to use MetroBus, MetroLink, or the Downtown Trolley, however I opted to use the rideshare service because I am not familiar with any of the public transportation systems in St Louis. Before entering the museum, I had my bag searched and I had to go through a metal detector. Admission to the Gateway Arch Museum is free, though it costs money to actually go up in the Arch. Read more on the official museum website here.
The Gateway Arch Museum is right next to the arch itself. The museum building features an extended center path, with six exhibit areas to the left and right of the path. Each exhibit area is spacious and can accommodate large crowds and mobility aids with ease. Besides the museum, the building also has a gift shop and cafe- I loved the gooey butter cake fudge at the gift shop and also got a really cool necklace of the Gateway Arch.
The first thing I noticed- large print
When I first walked into the museum, I had Google Assistant ready to read me the exhibit labels- read more about Google Assistant here. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the needs of guests with low vision had been considered when designing exhibits, and there were large print labels available that described what was on display. Braille labels were added shortly after my visit as well. While I can’t speak for the accuracy of the Braille given that I’m not a Braille reader, I have heard that it’s a word for word copy of what is on the large print labels.
Tactile map of the grounds
One of the things that helped me visualize the Gateway Arch National Park was the tactile map that allows visitors to feel the paths, buildings, plants, and the arch itself. This is especially helpful for people with vision impairments as it helps with figuring out surrounding areas. Read more about creating tactile images with everyday objects here.
One of my favorite parts of the Gateway Arch Museum was the bronze statues that acted as tactile models for many of the popular artifacts on display. Instead of seeing the handcart on display with my eyes, I am able to feel the different details such as the wheel spokes, elevated ground, and belongings covered in cloth. It’s a perfect scale model and is really helpful for me to understand what is on display.
Why I didn’t go up in the Arch- and what I did instead
The Gateway Arch features many narrow stairs and standing for 30-60 minutes, which is something I have trouble doing with my Chiari Malformation- read more about Chiari here. Also, since I am visually impaired, I wouldn’t be able to see the beautiful view like everyone else.
Instead of climbing to the top, I found a virtual reality/360 video that allowed me to see the view from the top and lean as close to my screen as I wanted to. I’ve embedded the video below- read more about VR for vision impairment here.
Fun pictures to take
Here are some fun poses/photo opportunities for visiting the Gateway Arch:
- One of the most common poses for photos at the Gateway Arch is to extend your arms above your head, as if you are holding up the arch with your hands
- Some people will lean against the base of the arch and angle their bodies against it
- For gymnasts or other flexible people, you can create an arch with your back with the Gateway Arch in the background
- Extend your arms to the side of the arch as if you are pushing it
- If you prefer to stay inside, I highly recommend taking a photo with the scale model, which can be touched or held onto
The Gateway Arch Museum is a great example of universal design, and I hope that more museums will incorporate the same accessibility features into their designs. I highly recommend visiting when you’re in St Louis- you won’t regret it!