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Why This Museum May Offer An Acceptable “Town Square”

This is a test, so don’t look below just yet, please.

I’ve written in the past about the goal of so many museums to become “town squares,” leaving behind their past as “cultural cathedrals.” I prefer the cultural cathedral metaphor — art museums as a place for really looking at art, for seeking inspiration and enlightenment, sometimes for reaching for an almost spiritual experience. The concept of becoming a town square may or may not exclude those goals — depending on the noise and activity levels that are fostered — but the concept certainly makes them harder.

And yet, the two are not mutually exclusive. It’s perfectly all right — even a laudable goal — for museums to want people to come to common areas, like restaurants and coffee bars, to seek social interaction. I think that’s great, as long as it doesn’t make the other goals impossible for those would-be cathedral-goers.

So here I have posted several pictures I took recently at a museum with my cell phone (pardon the quality). I snapped two venues on a Wednesday afternoon. In the one with red walls, people were communing with art, via computers, as well as with each other. In the other place, it was all about eating and being social — it was completely accessible from the outside. One did not have to go into the museum to use this cafe, and many there clearly had not. The museum presumably was, though, earning a profit on the food it sold — which looked quite a bit more appetizing than some museum fare. (I sampled a slice of quiche, and it was just ok, however — but it was mid-afternoon, long past lunch and therefore probably long past its prime. Bad choice on my part. The sweets looked delicious.)

Notice the lack of school children beefing up the attendance numbers. Notice the mix of ages, the presence of men.

Now guess which museum this is.

First, a hint: From the outside, this museum is an example of what people frequently label as “intimidating,” ridiculously. It dates to the mid-1800s. But it doesn’t look as if it’s scaring ordinary people away, does it?

Second, this museum is full of old art. Its collection extends from the 13th century only to the 19th. No Warhol here. Its director recently blasted the cookie-cutter approach to contemporary collecting, and questioned the legitimacy of certain categories.

Yet it draws. Admittedly, this museum has a big tourist base.

Ok, you know now — It’s the National Gallery in London. I admit this may be a bit unfair — but I can’t think of another museum I’ve been in that has added this social aspect so successfully without ruining the experience for awe-seekers. Maybe the Met, but it has so much more room, more kinds of art, to work with.



  1. So wait – the “two venues” were different parts of the same museum?

  2. Oh, Judith, don’t get me started.

    The National Gallery’s gift shop was for years my Christmas shopping place – and it has also a serious book section.

    The restaurant in the new section’s mezzanine overlooking Trafalgar Square was my favorite. I met interesting people there and met friends for lunch. At one time, it offered seasonal menus of regional dishes from Britain – fish, oyster, lamb with fresh produce…

    Being free, the National Gallery was so great when I had 20 minutes between appointments in the area. I’d pop into the Rembrandt room – 19 of his paintings last time I counted. But if I had to pay, well…

    (I am still dreaming that someday our major (and all other) US museums will be free…)

    PS LACMA in Los Angeles now has Ray’s Restaurant and Stark Bar in the Renzo Piano-designed open court. It has become a gathering place for after-work drinks, with Friday evening free Jazz – all in plain view of art: Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass and Chris Burden’s Urban Light. Now imagine if the galleries are free…

  3. Judith. Greetings! Point of reference–I worked with Luisa Kreisberg for 8 years. Granted, the example I share might be considered more ‘folk’ rather than ‘high’ art to some, but an issue always discussed in Lusia’s firm was the definition ‘culture’ in contemporary society. We reached consensus, defining culture in the broadest sense to include: performing and visual arts, science centers, aquariums, botanical gardens, and educational institutions.

    It’s with this caveat that I suggest the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning NY. If you haven’t been, take the journey. In full reveal, it was a client of Kresiberg (for its expansion in 1999); a project I headed. It conforms to your thinking and is truly a great 360 degree experience preserving the integrity of the ‘art’ of glass, while adapting to contemporary issues and desires/needs of its patrons.

  4. Comments from friends and colleagues in Corning tell me that over the years it has developed into both. Locals use the physical layout; both outside around the complex and inside—the public spaces—as a point of meeting up; gathering. For some, it is used just to take a break in the day for lunch, never entering the formal fine art galleries, glass blowing demonstration or various interactive exhibits in the experience galleries and using the on-site cafe for a meal. Perhaps I could have been clearer with my original postings.

  5. “Notice the lack of school children beefing up the attendance numbers.” This is a distressing statement implying that museums only host school groups to increase their on-paper attendance. In fact, many meaningful experiences can be had through museums partnering with and hosting school groups and this is an important part of virtually every museum’s mission.

    • Thanks for your comment, but I believe you have inferred something I had no intention of implying. However it’s hard to deny that many museums are loathe too separate out school-group attendance from walk-in attendance because the latter is dreadfully small.

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