Enchanted Caves, MonstroCity, World Aquarium and More!
of an Exhibition
Published on July 25, 2007
I have discovered the jungle gym of my dreams – if only I wasn’t on the final leg of a two week cross-country road trip, with days on-end spent sitting in a car seat, and now so stiff in the joints, even a walk across the parking lot requires some painful effort. What can I say, I’m getting older… Nevertheless, even from the perspective of a road-weary observer, the City Museum of St. Louis is a sight to behold, almost too fantastic to take in with just one visit, and absolutely one of the most energetic and bold and creative attractions in the United States. It is rare and wondrous. It is an amalgam of enterprise, a myriad of curatorial intentions. It is interactive, open-ended and radical in its trust in human creativity, self-reliance and chaos.
The central feature of the City Museum-if such a thing could truly be identified-must be the vast complex of monkey bars and deep caves, secret tunnels and human-sized rat mazes that proliferate the site. It’s a testament to the resourcefulness and unbridled creativity of its founders, led – if that’s the right word – “set free” may be more like it – by an artist named Bob Bassily, and first opening its doors in 1997. In a way that marks its eccentric Southern-ness, there is a dose of the Reverend Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden here as well as a bit of Rural Studio architecture. The Museum literature boasts that the exhibits herein are constructed entirely of recycled materials; concrete and structural steel must have been brought in by the ton. Even the “World Aquarium” – well worth the additional door charge – provides unconventional viewing possibilities of tanks and pools full of all sorts of reptilian and aquatic creatures. It cracks all notion of what an “aquarium” ought to be, and successfully at that. A lot of the Museum’s programming seems focused on animal demonstrations.
This place is fertile for self-organizing play and who-knows-what-all-kinds of informal education. A group of young people are in that corner discussing the rules for a game of tag – the only rules: if you’re tagged, you’re it, and no running. I recently read of experiments in which scientists found a direct correlation between the complexity of one’s surroundings and robust cellular development in the hippocampus area of the brain (see the work of Elizabeth Gould) , and so can’t escape the comparison—this place is overloaded with novelty, rich with brain nutrients at every turn! I stumble across the City Museum version of the “Pipes of Pan” – it only occurs to me because someone has scrawled “Take off your shoes to play” in magic marker nearby, with arrows pointing to a growth of tubes sprouting from the fantastic landscape. I take off my shoes and begin rapping out rhythms – soon noticing that somebody behind me, unseen, deeper in the maze, is playing along on their own set.
The labeling is sparse, haphazard and even incidental if even in-existence. The viewer is encouraged to generate their own narrative—their own reasons for odd juxtapositions and unheard-of expositions. Whetherfor the Shoelace Factory? This whole place is unabashedly experimental. And, as must be expected of anyplace treading this territory, sometimes disappointing. A row of cabinets displaying antique bits of porcelain and assorted medical implements is completely unlabeled, but entirely too much like “real” cabinets I’ve seen in historic museums and collections, such that it comes off as mockery of a kind. I’m all for alternative curatorial experimentation – I’m thinking of artists like Mark Dion, Hans Haacke, Fred Wilson, and others, as well as The Museum of Jurassic Technology or curatorial websites such as the Tate’s “Your Collection”. Unfortunately, some of the City Museum’s unlabeled curiosities pose too little a challenge for much consideration.
But salvaged pianos! Have I mentioned how refreshing it is to walk through a “museum” and hear a bunch of kids gathered around a battered old grand piano, unguided and unhesitatingly tapping out noise and song and attentively observing the results? This is the sort of experience that defines the City Museum. It stays open until one a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. I’ve always wondered why more science centers don’t consider similar hours: they’re only unconventional if one fails to recognize the role that concerts and lectures, video arcades, and cinemas play in filling the public’s leisure time.
The City Museum is proudly profuse with risk. It openly tempts the troublemaker. It’s braver than anyplace I’ve ever been that calls itself a “museum” and in being so courageous, puts absolute trust in the guest. This is positively remarkable, and makes it a place worthy of focused study by museum professionals. It’s out there on the fringe and at the same time it offers up endless inspirational possibilities. I urge you to make a visit – but do yourself a favor and do your stretches, warm up your muscles and any old bones, and make it one of your first stops – not your last – on your trip or your family’s vacation.