City Museum, St. Louis

A week ago, I drove to St. Louis, MO, for the day with my sister Lauren to see a concert. We arrived early and had several hours to kill, so we took up the suggestion of one of Lauren’s friends who recommended visiting the City Museum.  We knew very little about the museum before we walked through the front doors.

img_8835The City Museum is difficult to describe; often called a playground for adults or a artsy funhouse, it is 600,000 square feet of weirdness. Upon entering, Lauren and I faced a large atrium where we were attacked by stimuli in every direction: a long slide full of shrieking children, a giant tunnel whose entrance was the mouth of a white whale, columns covered in shards of mirrors, mosaic-tiled sloping floors, a ceiling dripping with silvery feathers.

When I looked for a map, I saw a sign that stated no maps existed; the purpose of the museum was to let yourself get lost and find your own route, making discoveries along the way. Lauren and I began walking through the first floor. We heard noises above us and looked up to see people in the ceiling, crawling through wire-framed human habitrails. Ramps and stairs took us to dark corners and hidden alcoves; I wouldn’t have minded having my camping headlamp. Upon entering one of the tunnels, we saw that the way out was to climb through a hole in the floor.

img_8768“I am too hungover to go down that,” Lauren said. We backtracked and found another way through.

The City Museum reminded me of the House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin, another twisty-turny maze of curiosities, arty weirdness, and bizarro reality. As we traveled up to the City Museum’s roof, the spirit of the place began to inhabit us. I defied my fear of heights to climb into an airplane frame hovering in the sky, 10 flights above St. Louis’s sidewalks. I got down on my hands and knees to pass through a crawlspace in order to access a spherical birdcage suspended in the air. We rode a 10-story tornado slide from the roof to the caves; the slide circled a dark stairwell and as I shuttled around the dimly-lit tight curves, I could imagine myself passing into another dimension. We tried to escape the large cave, trying one tunnel after another which all seemed to lead us back to a rock formation lit by a glowing crystal. Somewhere on another floor, an organ began to play, and its haunting music drifted to where we stood lost in the dark.

The museum reawakened memories of our favorite childhood fantasy movies from childhood and beyond, causing us to make references such as:

  • “I halfway expect to turn a corner and drop into a shaft where the Helping Hands from Labyrinth carry me down.”
  • Are those the oracles from Neverending Story? Do we need to pass a test to get through?
  • “This looks like the cave where Jon Snow lost his virginity.”

Our explorations ended in MonstroCity, an outdoor garden of ball pits with a snack bar. My palms and knees were dirty from crawling through tunnels, my clothes were grubby, and the muscles in my legs and arms twanged from pushing my way up cargo nets and down ladders. For a few hours on a Friday, I wasn’t a 37-year-old adult; I was a kid testing the tensile strength of something I wanted to climb. I was an explorer, willingly lost. I was someone who refused to believe that the fantasy worlds I grew up loving were anything other than real.

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