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New interactive exhibit immerses kids in St. Louis-area history

Cary Horton (Courtesy of Missouri History Museum)


Children learn differently than adults—there’s no studying, no note-taking, and not a lot of deep reasoning. There’s mostly just play.

With that in mind, the Missouri History Museum’s History Clubhouse, its first permanent exhibit specifically designed for children, opened in June. History Clubhouse is an explorative space in which kids can discover St. Louis-area places of note: Downtown, Cahokia Mounds, Forest Park, and the Mississippi River.

Lindsay Newton is the youth and family programs manager at the Missouri History Museum. She says the exhibit is the first of its kind at the museum—designed for, and by, kids.

“We just realized that there was a need,” she said. The history museum already provided other programs for families, but they were often overbooked. Newton and her team realized that there was a demand for a permanent exhibit completely dedicated to children. But actually constructing the space involved years of planning and testing.

“We knew, because this was such a different endeavor for us, and we wanted something for families, it needed to be by families,” Newton said. Her team visited museums all over the country; surveyed participants at existing youth and family programs; sent family focus groups to other local exhibits; and took feedback from kids and parents alike at a prototype established last year.

The precursor exhibit, called History Clubhouse: Let’s Build It!, encouraged families to play, experiment, and provide feedback on the design.

“I can honestly say pretty much everything that we’ve built was because kids gave us the idea,” Newton said.

In the permanent exhibit, kids enter a giant clubhouse—about 5,000-6,000 square feet—where everything is hands-on, said Newton. The first scene is modern Downtown St. Louis; kids then take a trolley “back in time” to the Mississippi River steamboat era. The next stop is the ancient Mississippian culture in Cahokia, where kids can farm, fish, and play traditional games; and finally, children can serve fair food at the 1904 World’s Fair.

“We know children don’t fully understand the world around them, but they do come equipped with those tools,” Newton said. “They have this innate need to figure out how things work, to tinker and play.”

By allowing kids to interact with Missouri lifestyles of 100 and 1000 years ago, the history museum hopes not only to educate, but to spark children’s interest in local history.

Cityscape is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.