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.
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.