One of the (many) ongoing debates in museums concerns the definition of what is educational. At first glance, you would think that this would be fairly simple: an activity that teaches or imparts information in some way. In reality, it is far more complicated. Where do we draw the line between education and entertainment? Many museums struggle with finding the correct balance of fun and learning without straying into the realm of “edutainment.”
Enter the City Museum in St. Louis. The Museum has been around since 1997, when the International Shoe Company was converted by designer Bob Cassily into the current Museum. Arguably, the best way to describe it is as a gigantic playground for adults and children alike. Visitors are encouraged to explore a humongous 10 story slide (as opposed to the less humongous 5 story slide), a huge ball pit, realistic underground caves, and planes to explore. If you haven’t had a chance to check out what their museum offers, I would suggest you visit their website or check out this video.
So what is the educational value of the City Museum? Is it merely an amusement park dressed up as a museum? Cassily, founder and designer of the Museum, believes that the point of the Museum is not to have people “learn every fact;” rather, the purpose of the Museum is to instill a sense of exploration and discovery that is not place-specific. To Cassily and the City Museum staff, if the Museum is effectively educating, it sees itself as helping its visitors take what they practice in the museum and use it to navigate the outside world.
If we consider what the Museum is doing as more entertainment than education, what does that mean for our children’s museums? Is it a slippery slope? Or is it an effective way to bring in visitors and to give a fresh face to what is generally seen as the stuffy, closed off world of museums?
If we consider it to be education, and not merely entertainment, what kind of a precedent does that set for other museums or institutions providing educational resources and activities? Is it an equally slippery slope?
What do you think?
One thing is for sure – educational or not, I’ll be visiting the next time I find myself in St. Louis.