I am writing today to advocate the creation of a Museum of the City of St. Louis. St. Louis’s place in the broad history of the United States and North America is critical, deep and little celebrated. And this is a tragedy because to the extent that a people know and appreciate their history they can become devoted to shaping its future. This is especially true of children who are a community’s future.
Ancient peoples, who held their bards and other collectors of history in high esteem, realized this but modern societies, in the face of enormous technological advances, are losing their sense of the past and their reverence for the sources of culture at an alarming rate.
This Museum of the City of St. Louis would need to possess the depth and scholarly weight of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago because its focus would not be on St. Louis as a singular urban entity, nor even a single city within the state of Missouri, but on St. Louis as the vortex of an immense area of natural resources and a connecting point to other regions, cultures and markets. It should be so irresistibly interactive that children and adults alike would be drawn into the incredible mystery and drama that history, when it’s well told and illustrated, evokes. They would realize the considerable accomplishments that people like themselves have achieved along the Mississippi River, on this piece of prairie, and be inspired to create and construct the St. Louis of tomorrow. They could also recognize its weaknesses and work to improve them.
You may think this a pie-in-the-sky concept with no chance of succeeding but St. Louisan Bob Cassilly is in fact accomplishing this very thing with the visual arts in his City Museum. Children and adults who venture into that place experience art on all levels – not simply as viewers, as an audience – but climbing, crawling, sliding and figuring out how to physically negotiate works of art. There are even opportunities to begin to create their own art while inside. So it can be done. It can be done locally. It can leave not only St. Louisans but people from all over the world – gasping with amazement and becoming themselves – inspired – as does City Museum.
This Museum of the City of St. Louis would begin with that which existing St. Louis museums have neglected – setting a stage for the most significant prehistoric human culture in the Mississippi River Valley – the Mound Builders – then proceed to the first St. Louisans and the Indian trade here, through formation of a state legislature, to a frontier capitol, the golden age of the steamboat, the Civil War, the Great Metropolis of the Mississippi River Valley in 1875, the rise of the modern skyscraper, the largest hosting of human achievements and cultures the world has ever seen in the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 and finally to vision-shaping the future.
St. Louis’s present – and only – commemorations of the Mound Builders who raised the greatest capital north of Mexico to the east in present day Cahokia, Illinois and extended it westward to include this side of the Mississippi River – are a one block stretch called Mound Street – that is difficult to find because it is so short that you miss it while driving if you blink – and a granite boulder on Broadway, south of Mound Street, at Howard Street, from which the memorial identification plate has long since disappeared.
A great city preserves and commemorates its past to inspire its future. It’s time for St. Louis to become a great city again.
© 2010 Maureen O’Connor Kavanaugh
Update: I’m very happy to report that as of 2018 the City of St. Louis finally has a museum to match the brilliance of the Gateway Arch, which places the city in the national context it deserves. And it’s even better than I dreamed it would be! You can enter it from the park immediately east of the Old Courthouse.
While there I heartily recommend that you explore the marvelously re-envisioned and landscaped Gateway Arch National Park, in which the museum is located.