City Museum of St. Louis weds fear, fun and worldly wonders

The City Museum in St. Louis occupies a 600,000 square foot former shoe factory and is sometimes called the Museum of Phobias.

This year is full of changes for Forest Park Museum and our other Dallas County Conservation Board museums. Schools, summer enrichment programs, and home school tours are asking for in-depth programs on pioneer life, Iowa’s native American history, and environmental themes like prairie, soils, water and animal life.

The public continues to visit at a steady pace, and visitors and researchers are asking me and other staff some great questions.

At the same time, however, organized adult tour groups, ranging from bus tours to service organizations and special interest groups, have continued to decline. The people who built these groups and actively kept them going are now getting older and are much less active. Many of their clubs now have only eight to 12 active members and visit area attractions much less frequently.

All of these changes have impacted Forest Park and all of the other Iowa museums. I have combined many different themes at Forest Park and offer something for almost every age and interest group.

As a result, interest in Forest Park has increased, and more student groups are visiting all the time. By offering some safe, hands-on activities mixed with storytelling and many different themes and experiences, I can keep students interested for an entire day.

Obviously, we have to observe safety standards and watch for inclement weather. For example, few modern Americans of any age can be trusted with using an ax, and we cannot be out in the prairie during the increasingly frequent summer lightning storms. But we can still do many fun activities, such as children’s chores, games and encountering some of our live animal collection.

Our staff tries and, I think, succeeds in balancing safety concerns with the need to keep children and adults safe while teaching them to fully appreciate the cultural and natural history of Dallas County. We want to keep that sense of wonder and curiosity alive in all of our citizens.

In looking at other museums and nature centers, I think we are able to offer more experiences than many of them. I constantly try to come up with new, unique offerings. Once in awhile I even have a weird sense of envy but also a feeling akin to horror when I think about what is one of the most popular, weirdest and certainly most dangerous museums I know of in the U.S.

Yes, there are some strange museums, running the gamut from spam to mustard to erotic art. However, there is nothing as fun, strange or dangerous as the City Museum in St. Louis.

This museum opened in 1997 and has an annual visitation of more than 700,000. Artist Bob Cassily purchased the 600,000 square foot former shoe factory and developed what has been described as “a wild, singular vision of an oddball artistic mind.” The museum promotes itself as an “eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion and architectural marvel.”

I visited a few years ago and was amazed to see people of all ages running through all kinds of exhibits, climbing tunnels, crawling through caves, scaling outdoor tunnels leading to a jet hanging outside the museum, sitting in a school bus hanging over the edge of the building’s roof, feeding stingrays and talking with glassblowers holding hot glass inches from their faces.

My jaw dropped further as I saw senior citizens making shoelaces with Dr. Seuss hats, a very cool run through skateboard area with no skateboards, a dance studio with dancers everywhere, an unattended gallery of expensive art posters, a valuable display of St. Louis archaeology, a room full of stone gargoyles, a beatnik café with an incredible array of jukeboxes and pinball machines and a live and very active Coatimundi running through a plastic tube over the visitors.

In contrast to most museums, the City Museum prides itself on very few signs and very few rules. In the sea of happy people, one can find the occasional lost, crying child, and many people are sporting a few bruises. There is at least one safety attendant on every floor, but people sometimes have to help their fellow visitors out of narrow shafts or get their feet unstuck from between iron bars.

This museum gets great reviews, but there have been injuries and several lawsuits. One boy suffered head trauma, and a woman lost two fingers. The museum reached undisclosed settlements in these instances.

Some people refer to the City Museum as the Museum of Phobias since almost every part forces visitors to confront fears such as claustrophobia or fear of heights. It would be interesting to find a review written by a trained psychiatrist. Many of the blog reviews and other articles are quite amusing.

Sometimes I fear that Americans are losing their sense of joy and wonder at the world around them. A visit to the City Museum proves otherwise or at least proves that people are tired of rules and want some new thrills.

My visit left me with one question: Are we all secret anarchists? Try visiting the City Museum and see for yourself. In the meantime, come visit Forest Park and all of Dallas County’s other attractions!

Pete Malmberg is the historical and cultural resources coordinator for the Dallas County Conservation Board and curator of Forest Park Museum.


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