A note on St Louis
St Louis, Missouri sits on the banks of the mighty Mississippi – although at this point on its journey from Minnesota it is little more than fast moving murk attended by concrete banks. St Louis itself, though is a beautiful old town of 317,000 people. I’m staying south of Downtown in what in my eyes looks like a typically American suburb of old brownstone duplexes and flacid American flags. The population doesn’t support a huge museum-going culture but there are some well known gems dotted about town. By all accounts St Louis once had a much larger population. With that in decline now since the 1970s it is now a fairly quiet town, however highly neat and organised – a bit like it’s been pre-gentrified, ready for its second wave.
Gateway Arch St Louis
Opened in 1967 the Gateway Arch is a massive object and an apparently well known symbol of St Louis. An engineering marvel of its time, it is the shape of a chain suspended by two points, but upside down. With a typically American confidence it is dedicated to “the American people”. Why don’t we dedicate a massive thingy like this to ourselves in Australia? We’re okay as a nation, right?
The Gateway Arch - bottom (click to explore)
The Gateway Arch is actually commemorating Thomas Jefferson’s 1803 purchase of the Louisiana Territories for $15 million, nearly doubling the size of the United States of America. Despite recent renovations (see Day 1 post for a note on scaffolding), the whole site feels like a glorious relic from 1960s America and presents a nation enamoured with its own scientific and engineering prowess. The monument could just as easily be at Cape Canaveral. There’s a broad, curving path through a manicured park on the approach. The path is said to mimic the curve of the Arch which, due to the more direct approach being closed for renovations on the day of my visit, was frustratingly slow for a fast walker like my good self who is prone to pedestrian rage and is terminally insistent on the most direct route to point B. Once a ticket is purchased access is granted to a subterranean bunker and LAX-style security apparatus including metal detector and x ray machine – apparently the site was targeted by terrorists and has been in lock down post September 11. Once it was established I was not a threat to the monument I could enter deeper into the building to watch a brief documentary on the construction of the Arch and visit the gift shop should I choose.
Deeper, still and visitors approach one of two “trams” that spend all day every day trundling up and down from the peak of the arch. We are asked to take our positions on 8 numbered steps lining a sharp decline in groups of 5. Our “park ranger” makes wise crack about claustrophobia over a crackly PA system and eventually miniature doors fly open to reveal our “tram cars” – 8 of them stepping down the decline. I squeeze inside with a family of four and endure a slightly terrifying, awkwardly silent ascent up the arch. The tram system is quite ingenious, actually as the cars start almost level with each other and then mechanically stack themselves on top of each other as the arch angle sharpens only to level out again at the very top. At the top, tiny rectangular windows give a fairly spectacular view across St Louis to west and into Illinois to the east.
The Mississippi from the top of the Arch
Once everyone is satiated with their happy-snaps and gotten over the initial surprise at the expanse of the view, we line up again to begin the descent.
The Gateway Arch - top (click to explore)
My descending tram car is humid thanks to the previous occupants of sweaty high school students. Once on solid ground again I avoid the gift shop and pass through security again, exiting the concrete bunker and this once great piece of American ingenuity. I navigate the series of “Sidewalk Closed” signs – all part of the $380 million reconstruction process that by all accounts is here to make this monument dedicated to “the American people” great again.
Digital Engagement: Big interior refurbishment will supposedly include "interactive displays", functional website allows you to pre-purchase tickets for no discount
American Alliance of Museums Day 1
Today also kicked off Day One of the American Alliance of Museum annual conference I have schlepped to St Louis in order to attend. The theme for the conference this year is diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion, telling given the current political climate of the country. Museum events like this are one in a million with museum-folk from all sorts of backgrounds and expertise. And it’s really the diversity that is astounding – 4000 people all with a story to tell. The full gamut of museums are represented here from science museums to natural history museums to NASA. What’s great about an event like this is the desire for all delegates to get their knowledge out in the world in more engaging ways. The first seminar ‘Connecting the Public with Museum Researchers’ had presenters asking the question “What kind of people go to museums?” “Old.” the crowd chimed back at once (this is an old routine for everyone, it seems) “And?” asked the presenter. “White” everyone chimed back. The conversation from there didn’t linger too heavily on diversity but instead was largely focussed on syndicating research content to broader networks and its inherent cost – even for a behemoth such as the Smithsonian. There was a fairly sober conversation in this session as well about how the research and knowledge of experts can be readily accessed and appreciated in an online climate of fake news and misinformation.
The second seminar had delegates from the Minnesota History Center, the Living Computers Museum + Labs, Museum of Science and the California Museum of Science. The focus of this conversation was centred around really practical advice for creating and maintaining interactives for small, medium and large museums. Pro tip, readers: if you’re including an untethered object in a display, make it bigger than a standard pocket. Sage words. This was actually a really fun session with a really broad definition of the word ‘interactive’. A lot of the exhibits being described were actually entirely analogue making liberal use of pencils and paper. A great exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California celebrating the history of the Black Panther movement was intended to be a memorial to all the Black Panthers. As there were far too many to name in the one exhibit, visitors were asked to write the name of which they were most moved or inspired by and to dedicate a small, hand written swing tag to them. The result was a cumulative, sculptural object that grew over the life of the exhibition.
Finally I spoke on a panel with ACMI CEO/Director Katrina Sedgwick along with Julia Kaganskiy who is the Executive Director of New Inc. Both ACMI and the New Museum in NYC have co-working space embedded in their organisations (I’m a tenant of the former). We were there to talk about the models and the experience of co-working and how it benefits the institutions themselves and the industries it houses. Navigating the landscape in the USA of not for profit, for profit, benefactors, philanthropists and endowments is tricky and at times incompatible with and Australian experience of working in the cultural sector. That said, the common understanding of a start up economy, good or bad is well understood between the two. Julia is incredibly articulate in describing what it is like to facilitate a space to allow creative ventures to grow in the midst of a gig economy and venture capital that stipulates a return on investment that doesn’t see cultural output as valuable capital. Particularly when it is becoming increasingly difficult to make ends meet as a creative working in New York City, or any city for that matter.