City Museum: A Museum of the City?

8 Feb

by Christina Carlson-

Last week we talked about museums and their role in public history. Most museums are easy to categorize.  They might present the history of a local area or a specific group of people, a history of the natural world, art from throughout the ages, or a famous historical site such as the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn.

And then there’s City Museum.

City Museum in downtown St. Louis does not easily fit into the common stereotype of a museum. Are its tangled wires, hollowed aircraft, and old conveyor belts art? Can it be a history museum if it has no interpretative labels? It is really preserving a city’s past if it encourages visitors to scrambled over and climb on its “artifacts?”

All of these questions are legitimate when dealing with City Museum, and none of them have been definitively answered. Although many question the validity of calling City Museum a museum in the traditional sense, I would argue that it does many things a museum should.


Monstrocity at the City Museum

For one, City Museum preserves pieces of its city’s past. Nearly all of the industrial materials that make up City Museum are from within the St. Louis region (the one exception I know of is some of the architectural ornament in Architecture Hall which actually came from a school house in Indiana). The building which houses City Museum was once the home of International Shoe Company, one of the largest shoe producers in the world in the first half of the 20th century. The so-called ten story slide was once actually used in the shoe factory to send shoes to different floors. The two planes in the outdoor Monstrocity, both Sabreliner jets, were manufactured just south of the city of St. Louis. The stairs in the main hall came from the old St. Louis County hospital. Architectural ornament in Architecture Hall was salvaged from throughout the St. Louis area, much of it designed by famous architect Louis Sullivan. This list could go one, as there are countless other pieces to City Museum and each of those holds of a story of its own.

Yet, there is more to City Museum than just its preservation of these “artifacts” from a city’s past. City Museum also does something most museums would not dare–it reshapes and reuses the artifacts it houses and makes them into something new and exciting. Children and adults alike thrill at the idea of climbing several stories in the air in Monstrocity, running around “skateless park,” or running through the dark tunnels of the Enchanted Forest. Perhaps some would see this type of artifact “exhibition” as too gimmicky or too close to a theme park. Others would argue that it is nothing more than a tourist trap or a way for City Museum’s founder to make money. However, if this were the case, why is such care spent on using only objects from St. Louis? In a rare interview, City Museum’s founder did stress that, “the point is not to learn every fact, but to say, ‘Wow, that’s wonderful.’ And if it’s wonderful, it’s worth preserving.”[1] Is City Museum really more than a giant playground? By reusing refuse from the industrial heyday of St. Louis, is City Museum actually doing more than a traditional museum? Is it possible that by allowing visitors to interact with the city’s past in an unorthodox way, City Museum is bringing about greater change in a desolate downtown than a traditional history museum? Can any historic value be found in City Museum’s methods?

City Museum Interior

Exploring inside City Museum

I am not sure of the answer to these questions myself. I do know that I hope anyone who visits City Museum will let their “imagination run wild.” Because maybe that spark of imagination is what this city really needs.

[1] “Got Rollers?” Material Handling Management Vol. 62, no. 8 (August 2007), 4.


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