The City Museum at St Louis is neither a museum nor a museum about the City in the traditional sense but more of a cabinet of curiosities. On my recent first visit I was completely overwhelmed by the absolute eccentricity of every aspect of this 600,000 square foot, 7 storey, former shoe factory. The City Museum is an incredible panoply of “stuff” under one roof, an eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel made out of unique, found objects salvaged from the decaying city of St.Louis.
On entry to the museum you are neither issued with a visitor map or guided by any wayfinding, and as such, without any curatorial authorship this outsider art experiment’s main aim is to provide as much opportunity for play and exploration. You are encouraged to get lost and find your own thread and in doing so fall into one of the many hidden tunnels and slides embedded into the fabric of the building. You soon find yourself in the hand on aquarium filled with crocodiles and puffer fish or the automated shoelace factory. Our guide recounted that a recent visitor had complained that the place was “not a proper museum” and that their website should contain a warning because it was “too weird”!
This Monty Python-esque world was the brainchild of Bob Cassilly, a classically trained sculptor and serial entrepreneur, who one day decided to create an awe inspiring playground for his grandchildren. This seed of an idea began with a life-size fibreglass replica of a giant whale and soon grew expanding across the old factory filling every inch with his fantastical imagination. Cassilly and his crew of 20 artisans constructed the museum from the very stuff of the city; the museum is made entirely from old chimneys, salvaged bridges, construction cranes, two abandoned planes, a bank vault and a Ferris wheel.
As an unwritten rule upon entering the museum, parents are expected to take full responsibility of their children and no matter how much they scuff their knees climbing the many giant winding springs or accidentally trap themselves in amongst the catacombs of the underbelly of the museum, they are not expected to sue the proprietors. Although just in case, the museum is supported by a troop of canny lawyers to protect its existence. Each area of the museum offers it own experience and invites all visitors to suspend disbelief and be encouraged to participate wherever seems fit.
Each zone of the Museum offers its own ethereal psychological journey of the mind, mapping out our emotions like the 19th century phrenology heads once used to read our characteristics and predict our future actions and emotions. Many of the zones of the museum aim to provoke new behaviours and emotions amongst its visitors offering moments of intense play, exploration, and physical exertion. As you descend through each floor you are invited to participate and explore; an ad-hoc play area filled with thousands of building block like sponges invites guests to express their imaginations and the Enchanted Caves with its phallic cornices, nooks and crannies reflect the off-beat creative spirit of the rest of the City Museum.
Beatnik Bobs Bar offers respite with its own bar and library for existential reflection and hidden amongst the mythical objects inside the Museum of mirth, mystery & mayhem one can sit playing the piano or peruse the artifacts found from recent archeological digs of the Mississippi river neatly displayed in cabinets.
Yet as night falls, the museum transforms into a nightclub seething with an eclectic range of clientele enjoying the freedom to explore the museum without interruption The Ferris wheel begins its rotation and the school bus nightclub teetering on the roof lights up whilst music pumps and seeps through the floors of the 19th century factory. This is indeed an experience like no other and reflects the personality and imagination of its owner as once was the intention of many cabinets of curiosity, a repository of mythical and unique objects often used to inspire and instil a sense of wonderment.