Enchanted Caves, MonstroCity, World Aquarium and More!


of an Exhibition

by Jason Jay Stevens

Published on July 25, 2007

  • Description:

    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.

Latest Comments (9)

Don't forget the toast!

by Wendy Hancock - July 25, 2007

Check out Paul Orselli’s review of the Toast exhibit at The City Museum!

QuickTIme VR of the Museum!

by Jim Spadaccini - July 26, 2007

Ok. It’s not quite like visiting it in person, nothing on the Web is…but here’s a link to some outstanding 360 degree panoramas from the City Museum.

Great reminder

by Dan Wodarcyk - July 29, 2007

Thanks for the review. We visited the City Museum a few years back as part of an “inspirational” series of visits while starting a new project. You really captured it. It also happens to have a small pub inside and stays open late on weekends. Due to all the climbing and crawling, we all left very sore!

Unbelievable - An Absolute Must See

by Joe Imholte - August 07, 2007

A colleague and I just returned from a trip to St. Louis specifically to see this museum. It is the most amazing and wonderful experience. I can’t recommend this museum highly enough – it is a must see. We arrived before the 9am opening on a Monday and we shut the place down at 5pm. Eight straight hours in one museum and I could go back tomorrow.

Together... at last!

by Mary A - October 12, 2007

My favorite thing about the City Museum is that it gives parents and children a place to play and learn together. The city museum is an artistic environment to experience life and art and truly is a full body experience. How often do you see grandparents and kids crawling along the ceiling together? I love sharing the experience with my family. Each visit is a fresh adventure with new exhibits to explore.

Inspiring Review

by Michele - November 22, 2009

Thank you for your excellent review. I had no idea St. Louis had such a wonderful museum. I now plan on making a detour on my next drive south to OKC and checking it out. I’ll make sure I do my yoga first!


by Theresa Keefe - February 18, 2010

I feel truly panicked, I need to get this to this Museum ASAP. You made it sound glorious.

One Of My Favorite Places To Get Lost

by Larry Fisher - January 06, 2011

Ever since my first visit to The City Museum when it opened in 1997, I have been in love with this place. The best part of this museum is the ability to lose yourself in its amazing spaces and to embrace your inner child. The sense of wonder and awe that this museum inspires in all who visit cannot be bottled or sold – only experienced. Make sure to stop in at the Everyday Circus and say hello to the inspiring Jessica Hentoff while you’re there!

RIP Robert Cassilly

by Wendy Pollock - September 27, 2011

The City Museum mourns the death of its founder Robert Cassilly: http://www.citymuseum.org/

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