Wednesday, July 29, 2009

I got a bone bruise, it was AWESOME!

So last week, I went to St. Louis for a museum conference. I presented a paper--my first time doing so in this field, and I only did it once back in my medievalist days, so the experience was fairly exciting. (The bit where it wasn't done until the night before was particularly exciting, as was the bit where I wondered if my laptop was going to work with the projection equipment on hand. Yes, I did a powerpoint. Shut up.)

Anyway, so I got that out of the way Thursday morning, and this left me free to enjoy the rest of the conference without stress. Which I did, it was a great time and I met a lot of lovely people in the Visitor's Studies biz. However, the thing I'd been looking forward to mostest of all in going to St. Louis was a visit to the CITY MUSEUM. I had heard all kinds of amazing and wonderful things about this place. And I was NOT disappointed!

First of all, if you are one of those folk who think that museums are Places With Stuff in Cases with Labels Telling You What the Stuff is and Why You Should Care, then the City Museum will just bother the shit out of you. "That's not a museum!" you'll say. "There's no learning going on there, it's just a playground! And a dangerous one at that!" Ohhhh contrarey, my snobbish friend! Picture, if you will, a giant shoe factory near downtown St. Louis. Now picture a visionary--whose name is "Bob", I think--scavenging pieces of architecture and hunks of junk, works of art and random objects from demolition sites around the city, and beginning to weld them together into a weirdly surrealist microcosm of St. Louis itself. The first floor of City Museum consists of a cave system, with endless passages branching off each other, mostly in pitch darkness--I could only find my way by feel in places, and some passages were too small for me to fit through or too high for me to reach--with stairs and twists and turns and a crystal cave filled with fantastical sculptures of monsters at its center. Finally you find your way out, and you're standing next to a massive fiberglass whale; you can walk into its mouth and out its tail and onto a platform which leads to a hollow log which you can crawl through to reach a treehouse. The second floor is filled with wild and wonderful bits of architectural salvage, cobbled together like a nightmare landscape, with a bizarre art installation about corndogs and a one-ring circus in a room to the side. I watched a performance by 3 trapeze artists and an acrobat there around 10:30 at night, they were fantastic. The third floor is a snack bar/souvenir shop/vintage clothing store. And outside....

Outside is Monstrocity, an amazing construction of salvage and rebar which is completely climbable (for anyone who doesn't have issues with heights.) Note the airplanes. Note the fact that people are climbing along giant coils of industrial cooling equipment to get to airplanes which are suspended 4 stories up. Note that there are no safety nets to catch your glasses, your camera, or your child when you drop them. (Kidding--while it seems almost appallingly unsafe for children, whose fingers and feet could easily get wedged or caught any number of places in this museum--there's no real danger of falling from a height, and frankly I saw a tremendous amount of very positive parent/child interaction here, BECAUSE it seems so unsafe. Parents were actually paying ATTENTION to what their kids were doing, imagine that! This is a rare thing in our museum, which is so disgustingly safe that parents often just turn their kids loose, plant themselves on a bench, and tune out until little Johnny's done breaking stuff and is ready to go.) But this isn't the end of it--there's also the rooftop, where for an extra $5 you can climb into an old schoolbus which hangs out over the street, 12 stories up; you can ride a ferris wheel, slide down a giant slide, cross a pool on stepping stones and get sprayed with jets of water, and have a nice cold beer while watching the sun set over St. Louis.

So why IS it a museum and not just a playground? Because the whole point of the museum is teaching kids (and adults) about exploration. Every corner of City Museum hides something new and unexpected. Every choice you make about where to go, what to do, and how to get where you're going can have unintended consequences. Visitors learn not to be afraid, to explore, to be careful but be adventurous, and they'll be rewarded with an amazing experience. This is, quite frankly, exactly the sort of thing St. Louis itself is all about, with its "Gateway to the West" identity; the strangely conceptual museum at the base of the Arch is all about Lewis and Clark and Boldly Going Forth Into the Unknown. But what were Lewis and Clark doing? The same thing kids are doing at City Museum. Boldly going. Taking risks. Finding out what's down the passage or around the curve, sometimes completely without parental guidance. The City Museum IS the City of St. Louis, both in structure and in spirit.

And yeah, I hurt myself almost immediately. Whacked my anklebone while climbing over a low wall in the cave system. It was blindingly painful... as it was again 4 hours later when I whacked the same bone in the same spot while sliding underneath the whale. My own damn fault. And I had an AMAZING time.
Top of the world
(Flickr photoset is here.)