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Think kids don't like museums? Think again. There is one museum we visited that our kids fell in love with. It's a wonderland of art that brings together a giant preying mantis, a ferris wheel, a circus, giant (and miniature) slides, tunnels, caves and so much more. It's the City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri. And if you ask my kids, it's better than Disneyland!
Our first long road trip in North America took place in May-October of 2011. Our boys were 7 and 9 at the time and we traveled across the country in a rental minivan.
We saw Old Faithful erupt at Yellowstone National Park. We hiked the Athabasca glacier in the Canadian Rockies. We visited NASA in Houston, TX. We sailed the ocean to watch whales and fed alligators in the swamps of Louisiana; We even visited Disneyland and Universal Studios. It was all totally awesome!
Two years later, we returned for another long road trip in the US. We asked the kids which place would they want to visit again the most. Their answer was unanimous: The City Museum in St. Louis.
Yes, my two boys wanted to return to an art museum!
Ok, so the City Museum isn't your regular art museum. In this place, you are inside the art. You climb, touch, walk into and slide through works of art. You are encouraged to explore. To quote the words of the man who made this wonderful place happen, Bob Cassilly -
“THE POINT IS NOT TO LEARN EVERY FACT, BUT TO SAY, ‘WOW, THAT’S WONDERFUL.’
How do you describe a place like the City Museum?
(Am I the only one with "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" playing in my head right now?)
Let's give it a try. I'll start with the description from their website -
Housed in the 600,000 square-foot former International Shoe Company, the museum is an eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel made out of unique, found objects.
Get it? Not yet? Let me take you through our favorite places and maybe that will help.
On our first visit to the City Museum, I asked the person who sold us our tickets for a map of the museum. Surely they would have some brochure that will guide us through the various floors and help us find our way around?
This is what the entrance looks like and I knew the building was 10-storey high.
"We don't give our visitors brochures or maps," he smiled back. "Just go and explore!"
It was a lovely crisp autumn day so we decided to take the lift up to the roof and begin our exploration there. Which turned out to be a great decision. Let me tell you what we found up there.
On the rooftop of the City Museum
First, there is a giant working Ferris Wheel, right there on top of the roof. the operator was happy to let us board the wheel and ride for as long as we wanted to (we were the only people there that morning).
One of the things we spotted from the Ferris Wheel is that there's a giant preying mantis on the roof -
See that tunnel there? You can slide down from the preying mantis. It's one of the ten slides in the museum (and a fairly long one - though not the longest!)
How do you get there though? You go to the giant dome underneath the giant preying mantis, of course! Then squeeze your way up this ladder -
All the way up -
If you're not as daring as DH, you can just stay outside and play. Why not use a rope to climb up the giant slides nearby -
Or crawl through the tunnels on the roof -
Climbing up the tower works too -
Or just play in the pond -
Lots to do on the roof! No wonder a bus driver got so confused he nearly ran off the top of the building -
They said to explore, so we explored inside the bus too -
Here's a look down from the door next to the driver's seat -
But enough of the roof. There's so much more to explore! How do we get down? Sliding, of course! This is the museum's longest slide, and it spirals down, taking you from the top of the building all the way down to the first floor.
What's on the first floor? Oh, so much!
This entire huge space is a wonderful maze of sculptures and brilliant mosaics! Just beautiful! Wherever you turn your head, you're going to see a new magnificent monster, a magical tree or perhaps the huge life-size head of a whale. Chances are you can enter them, and very likely, go out to find yourself in an entirely different place! Everything is connected in an amazing maze that kids just can't stop exploring.
Some of the smaller monsters are in fact alive. They live in this fish tank -
Parents, expect to lose your kids here. If you can't find them, look up, they may just be over your head -
If you look hard enough, you'll find a way into the Enchanted Caves. Don't let younger children wander in on their own (you are supposed to accompany them throughout the visit, for obvious reasons).
The enchanted caves are pretty dark and scary. They also have their own network of tunnels -
I used flash lighting when taking the previous two shots. This is what it looks like inside the enchanted caves without the flashlight -
Let's go up to the second & third floors now
The enchanted caves can actually take you right up to the second floor or you could take the stairs. I was going to say "the boring stairs" but of course, there's nothing boring about the stairs at the City Museum! Whichever way you're getting there, the second and third floors are as mind boggling as the rest of the city museum.
As you explore, new and strange things show up around every corner and passage.
How about walking through giant doors of a vault into this?
Or stumbling upon an exhibition of what seems to be ancient European gates and columns.
Europe isn't your thing? Try ancient Egypt then.
An entire room is dedicated to natural history collections. No, they don't expect you to learn much about butterflies and skeletons, just experience the artistic aspects of old-fashioned natural history displays.
A particularly dark and creepy section has all-things-Americana displayed in fairly disturbing ways. If you're a fan of the show American Horror Story, you're going to love this area.
Looking for something less bizarre? How about a skate park? Several large skateboard ramps are here for the kids! No skateboards, just ropes you can use to swing over the ramps. Don't mind the giant pencil or scary wall design. This is art, after all, and you're part of the exhibit.
A classic duck shooting rack. Why not? It goes well with the miniature train next to it.
Think things were weird? They get weirder as you walk on the third floor and stumble across a circus. Yes, a circus ring, complete with clowns and acrobats. Sit down and enjoy the show.
If you go up one more floor, all you're going to find is a small cafe where you can get a donut. There are a still six more floors between you and the roof that are "under development". I can only imagine what the city museum will be like when they're all done, a few decades from now.
Let's go outside
Use one of the slides to slide back to the first or second floor and step outside. You're not leaving the museum's grounds just yet. You're just stepping outside to experience a whole new area of craziness: Monstrocity.
An entire new outdoors maze for kids to explore! With its own airplane, metal trees and a huge "pool" of colorful balls to swim in!
Whew! What a visit!
No wonder the kids loved it! We did as well! I admit, there's a certain surreal feeling when you visit the City Museum. Some of the exhibits are strange and even disturbing. At the same time, the place is certainly family-friendly and even kid-friendly. That's art for you, I guess.
So did we go back?
You bet! We ended up returning to St. Louis in 2013. The kids insisted. We spent a total of two days visiting the City Museum and something tells me we'll be back again someday.
How about you? Have you ever visited the City Museum? Would you consider visiting now that you've read this post? Do you know of any similar places in the world? I'd love to hear about them!
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