It’s hard to describe the City Museum in St. Louis. Embarrassingly enough, I almost cried a few times while I was there, because I didn’t know that such a place was possible. A place that honors the best of our past, while showing respect for our ability to enjoy creation and the act of creating, both on the refined end of the spectrum and on the low end of the spectrum: with glue, scissors and paint. Or a welder’s torch. Which probably should be the symbol for the City Museum. Once you go there and see the miles and miles of rebar used in building various installations, this idea makes a lot more sense.
The City Museum contains worlds, a place truly unlike anywhere else on earth. Which might seem hyperbolic, until you go there and experience it for yourself.
Like most museums, the City Museum is composed of stuff, most of it very old. But unlike most museums visitors can enjoy full-body immersion into this stuff, some of which has been altered to accommodate humans so that we can do the things we like to do best: eat, ride, climb, crawl, listen, jump, throw, slide, watch, touch and fall (with the right sort of landing). There are passages through the ceiling and passages through the floor. There are sculptures and mosaics and paintings. There are tunnels and slides and mazes. A one-ring circus takes place inside, near a skate park and an old café. The museum contains an aquarium and a few log cabins and a series of caverns, dark and cool just like the real thing. On one level there is an art room that is almost eerily silent, free of hovering helpers but packed with supplies for making your own stuff, just on a smaller scale than the stuff in the rest of the museum.
The best of the many indoor slides trumps everything else in the building, starting from the top floor and descending to the bottom. You experience nearly ten stories of circular sliding through the heart of the museum, around a center atrium which features a pipe organ from the 1920s. The sound of the organ echoes all around you as you slide — if you can hear the music past your own panicked shouting that is. It all makes for one of the most surreal experiences available to an adult short of psychotropic drugs.
I can’t really begin to describe all there is at this place, from the complicated climbing structures outside, including a Ferris wheel and school bus on the roof (which is only open during the summer months), to the displays inside dedicated to the natural world and the incredible architecture found in cities, pieces created a long time ago now, when human beings actually had an aesthetic that didn’t involve throwing everything considered passé in a landfill. Before the Age of Plastic. Before the Age of Litigation. Now our primary concern is safety. Safety above all else, and we need our experiences to be mediated by a thousand interpretative plaques, a docent leading us all around by the hand and explaining it all to death.
I didn’t know that another kind of museum existed until I went to the City Museum, where my 7-year-old climbed a tube made of nothing but pieces of rebar, welded together and mounted 40 feet in the air. He waved at me as he went past before moving out of sight, off to who-knows-where. Eventually I saw him again. He was in the ceiling, sitting in the green eye of a massive dragon. I know this sounds crazy. But believe me, it really happened at the City Museum. You should go yourself. You could make it a sort of pilgrimage in honor of the very best of humanity, collected and created and put in one place for everyone to experience. For a day at least, you will be reminded about what is possible: the beauty, nostalgia, optimism and fun we are capable of when we make stuff, saving the best of it for all time and building new stuff out of the leftovers, and then enjoying it, together.
For more on how this place came to be and information on how to get there, check out the museum website.