Museum Review – City Museum, St. Louis

By any conventional museum standards, the City Museum in St. Louis is an unmitigated disaster. Hordes of screaming children tramp up and down the staircases, there are no maps or signs to direct you on your way, exhibits are poorly labeled and rarely interpreted. If the museum is to be judged by the etymology of the word, of getting closer to the sense of wonder and inspiration embodied by the Greek muses, then it is an incredible success.

Interior of the City Museum, courtesy of citymuseum.org

The building continually forces the visitor to answer the question, “What kind of place is this?” The obvious response is that the museum was the pet project of the local artist Bob Cassilly, an architectural installation into which he could pour constant hours of effort. Approaching the museum from the outside, one certainly gets the impression of modern “found art”: tangles of rebar swirl through old plane fuselages, a school bus perches precariously off of the roof, an improbable castellated turret rises from the asphalt. On closer inspection, however, you realize that people are climbing through this art, that kids clamber inside the rebar and swing their legs over the fuselages. Once inside, the motley array continues, but is joined by an eclectic mix of static displays, from opera posters to doorknobs to biological curiosities, collections that would be seemingly be more at home in a more serious institution. Even a few carnival touches are present, from the Ferris wheel on the roof to the compact “big top” hosting magic shows on the third floor (accompanied by a food stand with cotton candy, no less).

Then what is this place: art, museum, or carnival? If forced to reduce it to a word, I would use “playground.” And in exploring the space, I became aware of how vital play is to awakening the scientific spirit. The most important function exercised during play, as in science, is observation. As you crawl through the caves or ascend the stairs in the Shoe Shaft, you’re always looking for another path, finding a way through the chaos, trying to make sense of it all. Observation, of course, leads to hypotheses: can I squeeze through that opening, or will that tube take me back where I started from? You are then invited to test your conjectures, revise them and share them with your friends. The scientific method is condensed and practiced naturally in play; perhaps the experience lacks formal rigor, but this lack is compensated by pure joy and engagement.

The sense of the museum can be summed up in the last room I visited. Physically exhausted but mentally alert, I found myself staring into container after container of a classical insect collection, countless shining beetles and wasps pinned to clean white backgrounds. My mind had been freed by play, and I was able to look at these specimens with new eyes. Suddenly, I was overcome by the vastness of evolutionary history, how untold billions of individuals had been subjected to the trial and error of natural selection to produce each individual species. That kind of wonder, that slack-jawed amazement at natural processes, can’t be drilled into a visitor by text-heavy displays and droning guides. This wonder must be arrived at individually, and the City Museum does a fantastic job of preparing the minds of its visitors for such revelations.

Wielding Science

Towards the end of his life, the famous astronomer Carl Sagan gave an interview in which he stated, “We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science and technology. And this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces. Who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?”

Carl Sagan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As a recent graduate of a master’s degree program in crop science, I’ve found myself troubled by the general lack of well-rounded scientific knowledge in the public at large. Even in the academic community, students and specialists spend huge amounts of time learning more about less, ignoring entire fields of study as irrelevant to their professional development. It was disappointing when the professors in my department failed to excite farmers about their advances in understanding crop disease resistance, but it was equally unsettling when none of my fellow grad students understood a parallel I drew between the drop in the cost of genetic sequencing technology and Moore’s Law. The boundaries between disciplines continue to blur as researchers develop biological computers or body armor from mantis shrimp or model mosh pits using gas laws, and no one can afford to be ignorant about seemingly far-removed spheres of science.

This blog, in some small way, will aim to broaden the scientific knowledge of a curious public. I hope to expose my readers to exciting new discoveries across the breadth of scientific inquiry, as well as to discuss the implications of these discoveries to society and the environment. By no means should we lose the sense of wonder gained from learning about the world, but we should also consider how the world might be changed by our learning. We live in fast-moving times for science and technology. It is our responsibility as human beings not to fall behind.

I’d like to close with another Sagan quote, from which I’ve taken the name of this blog. “And so the image of the mad scientist haunts our world—from Dr. Faust to Dr. Frankenstein to Dr. Strangelove to the white-coated loonies of Saturday morning children’s television. (All this doesn’t inspire budding scientists.) But there’s no way back. We can’t just conclude that science puts too much power into the hands of morally feeble technologists or corrupt, power-crazed politicians and decide to get rid of it. Advances in medicine and agriculture have saved more lives than have been lost in all the wars in history. Advances in transportation, communication, and entertainment have transformed the world. The sword of science is double-edged. Rather, its awesome power forces on all of us, including politicians, a new responsibility — more attention to the long-term consequences of technology, a global and transgenerational perspective, an incentive to avoid easy appeals to nationalism and chauvinism. Mistakes are becoming too expensive.”