Commercial Culture in the Museum

As part of Dr. Bellow’s Museums and Society course this semester, students are asked to write a short weekly response paper in which they think critically about the musuem as a physical space, a cultural institution, and as a political, economic, and social entity. Below, first year MA student Samantha Rhodes shares her analysis of commercial culture in the National Gallery of Art and the Louvre:

The National Gallery has been the sight of many joyful and encouraging visits, however, one aspect has always been a little unsettling. The location of the Museum Cafe, also known as the Garden Cafe, within the middle of the museum is an interesting, yet somewhat problematic feature. Leanne McTavish’s essay “Shopping in the Museum? Consumer spaces and the Redefinition of the Louvre”, which analyzes the relation between the Louvre museum and the underground shopping mall Carrousel de Louvre, gave me some tools to analyze my previous experience at the National Gallery. As she points out the Carrousel de Louvre is located on the lower level of the museum under the galleries. By noting the lower level and separation, McTavish analyzes the tension between ideal attendees associated with the exhibitions, and the other attendees, who are associated with the more physical pleasures of consumerism. Essentially her argument assumes a class distinction and ideal viewership between the two areas located within the Louvre. After reading McTavish’s analysis, I began critically thinking about not only the Garden Cafe located in the NGA, but the Cascade Cafe, which is a glorified title for a general food court. Although I do not have much of an issue with food spaces within a museum, there is a question of the differences between the Garden Cafe and the general food court. I would argue that there are social distinctions between the two spaces. The Garden Cafe is located on the Western side of the museum and is tucked in the middle of exhibits. A viewer who enters through the 7th Street side of the building must also pass the cafe on the way to the East Wing and the general food court. The prices of the Garden Cafe run high, with entrees being above 20 dollars. While in the food court prices are more economical. Not only do the soaring prices denote a difference, but the location of the Garden Cafe amidst, not separated from, the rest of the museum recalls similar questions found in the McTavish article.

The Carrousel du Louvre (the food court and shopping center) was separated from the rest of the museum on a lower level, thus signifying the status of the structure in comparison to a more “civilized” culture located in the exhibitions on the upper levels. The National Gallery has made this observation even more obvious. The Garden Cafe not only caters to more elite individuals, but it is also located close in proximity to the exhibits. Thus one can have a pleasant, expensive meal while also being encouraged by the general splendor of the NGA. The Cascade Cafe, or the food court, was built for a mass amount of people, thus the architecture is not as grand, nor are the reproductions of pantings that feature food products. These paintings were situated on simple columns, and their quality is less than ideal, thus adding even more of an inferior air when compared to the pristine Garden Cafe. McTavish makes an argument that there is tension between two museum ideals, one that is meant to attract a more diverse public, and one that worries that this public will consist of people that museum officials have long sought to exclude. (184) Although the argument does not directly translate to my observation, I do believe the tension between the two cafes exist, and I believe this tension is noted by numerous guests to the museum. Even upon my first visit to the NGA, I was disturbed by the location of the Garden Cafe, it was as if the visitors having lunch were themselves a spectacle, an ideal to live up to. Until that ideal is fulfilled, I must go to a lower level where food is more affordable and the exhibits are far away. The intriguing tension between consumer and exhibition space proved an interesting analysis inspired by McTavish’s example from the Louvre in Paris.

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First year MA student, Samantha Rhodes, poses in front of Frederic Church’s Niagara.

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