St. Louis City Museum displays exhibits in unconventional manner


Jack Forrest, Maddi Sponsel, and Nolan Canfield

This story was posted as part of the JEA/NSPA National High School Journalism Convention “Online News Package” competition. Updated Nov. 23. 

St. Louis, Missouri’s City Museum is a museum that’s different, and that’s by design. Not only does it stand apart from other local museums, but its staff also follows a philosophy of reusing and repurposing. From its opening in 1997–inside a former shoe factory–the museum has hosted works of art and exhibits ranging from pedicure fish, infamous for eating dead skin, to an old bus that hangs off the roof.

“I know it’s gotten bigger, more mainstream and popular with social media and whatnot, but this is one of the places to be,” front desk attendant Sam Klebert said. “You have to see it once because you hear ‘museum’ and you think ‘exhibits that I’m just looking at.’ But the exhibits here you’re interacting with. There are people here who built them. You can talk to them and they’ll tell you how they did it. It’s a whole bunch of recycled material and material we just found.”

The museum’s philosophy to develop over time has caused the museum to hire artists and architects like Paul Bayer, who each design works that are interactive and fresh.

“I do a lot of the architectural stuff. I do the stone carving also,” Bayer said. “The big piece out front that weighs 20 tons and is six foot by six foot by seven. The kids can climb in and out of it. I also did an enormous model of an architectural museum over there and I built most of that. Most of that stuff came from different places and we reassembled it and on the fourth floor we did the same thing. We reassembled the 14th floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange.”

On top of changing attractions, the museum has amplified, and in some cases, created, the stories of objects within its walls.

“I have a story of someone losing a finger out on one of the attractions,” event coordinator Nadege Moeller said. “There were so many different stories to that. Come to find out, they just went down one of the tubes out there too fast and got their finger caught up. Pretty soon, the story was ‘oh, they lost a hand,’ but there’s so many stories here. And sometimes, if people don’t know things, you’re told to make it up so legends are born. We try not to make them too grandiose though.”

This innovation has attracted many visitors to return, hoping to see the museum’s newest addition. By its nature, however, it also causes a wide array of opinions.

“We have a rich environment of people that come here from all over the world,” Moeller said. “They come in droves, and we have different types of comments that come back. I can see all of that through their eyes. We have the terrified parents that are like ‘oh my God, we are going to lose our kid, we’ll never see them again, they’re going to get hurt,’ and then we have the people that come in and are like ‘wow, I’ve never been to a place that’s looked like this.”

The museum’s ability to excite has made its employees–many of whom visited it as children–learn to admire its art all over again.

I’d been here at least 20 times before I started working here,” Klebert said. “I’ve worked here for two plus years now, and even as I walk around, I look at the mosaics on the floor–I find something I haven’t seen, or maybe I forgot. There’s something every day. I think this place draws a lot of really artistic, really interesting people. Lots of people that are along my wavelength that like architecture and art. So, it just draws people that I share interests with.”

Although it appeals to adults and kids alike, the museum’s eclectic collections let all its visitors reconnect with their whimsy equally.

“I don’t really think you’re appreciating adult things, it’s more just imagination,” first time visitor Andrew Aleman said. “Everything’s interconnected. It’s all put together. There’s random bits that make you go, ‘wow, that’s really cool.’ It has unique design and architectural style in each part of it.”

For additional coverage of the St. Louis City Museum, visit @cgtrojaneer on Instagram