In the Land of Hungry Tourists, the Museum Cafe is King

Museum Resources
Museum Professional
Museum Resources April 14, 2017 Featured Image

Let’s turn museums into mmmuseums.

When it comes to making visitors happy, museums sometimes overthink it. We focus on big, complex projects: thought-provoking exhibitions, unique objects and artworks, exciting events, and eye-catching designs.

But for many visitors, it’s amenities like cafes that really make or break their museum experience. After all, if we can’t look after the most basic human needs of our visitors, how can they trust us to fulfill their emotional, intellectual, and social ones?

That’s why we love awesome museum cafes, shops, bathrooms, and other amenities.

Starting with the basics

Picture this: you’re two hours into a museum visit. The exhibits are fantastic, but now your legs hurt, your bladder is full, and your tummy is starting to rumble. Face it: your brain is more peckish than Picasso right now. And there’s no cafe, toilets, or seating in sight.

We’ve all been there.

Great amenities like cafes and places to relax provide the essential foundation of a great museum visit. Visitors won’t appreciate your amazing exhibits, events, staff, and volunteers if the only thing they can think about is how much they need a coffee.

Even though cafes don’t usually generate big profits for their museums, good ones make sure your visitors enjoy their overall experience and keep coming back. And a bad cafe experience could mean you never see those visitors (or their friends and family) again.

As museum educator Elissa Frankle puts it:

“You have to quiet…physical anxieties [bladder, hunger, fatigue, disorientation] to open the mental space for engaging with the museum’s content.”

She uses Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to help museums understand how to prioritize their visitor offerings.

Most museums excel at the top part of Maslow’s pyramid. But what about the basic needs at the bottom? Rather than being afterthoughts, these could be the foundation of a great museum experience.

Modern museum visitors are savvy consumers who often spend significant time and money on their visit. So there is increasing pressure to offer world-class amenities that can compete with non-museum restaurants and shops.

Rising to the occasion

Luckily, many museums have already accepted the challenge.

London’s Wellcome Collection, a medical history museum, has a cozy reading room which @crazymuseumlady describes as “like your own living room.” It’s definitely bigger than most living rooms but we agree it looks just as comfy!

Across the English Channel, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam not only has well-designed entrance areas, toilets, and signage, but also allows multi-entry on a single ticket. This benefit encourages visitors to get some fresh air between Rembrandt paintings without needing to pay twice.

Museum cafes and shops are now also emerging as top competitors amongst commercial food and shopping destinations. Salts Mill in West Yorkshire, UK has transcended the definition of a traditional museum by offering a combination of art gallery, shopping centre, restaurant, and visitor centre all in one historic former textile mill. This brings shoppers, foodies, and art lovers together to find what they want and maybe discover something new along the way.

From #hangry to happy

No one can enjoy fossils when they’re famished. But some museums have actually turned hunger into another opportunity to delight, educate, and inspire visitors.

At the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C, the Mitsitam Cafe lets visitors enhance their experience by trying native cuisines from across the Americas. What could be better (and tastier) for immersing visitors in indigenous cultures than Western Bison Chili from the Great Plains, Roast Maple-Brined Turkey from the Northern Woodlands, or Mesoamerican White Bean Soup?

Even if your museum doesn’t have an obvious culinary angle, you can still bring a taste of the exhibits to cafe patrons. At the Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam, visitors can enjoy High Tea complete with mini chocolate replicas of the objects on display.

The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester has taken the traditional museum cafe to the next level by offering gourmet breakfasts, lunches, and evening meals prepared by award-winning chefs. The cafe has been wowing museum lovers and foodies alike since it opened in 2015, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows so you can pretend you’re having a picnic without ever leaving the museum (or opening your umbrella).

And speaking of views between chews, the MCA Cafe and Sculpture Terrace at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia boasts panoramas of Sydney Harbour and Opera House. This means visitors can double-down on tourist attractions by experiencing Australia’s great modern art scene and Sydney’s famous skyline in the same place. Cafes can be much more than visitor refueling stations, so it’s great that many museums are now making eating and resting just as awesome as visiting the galleries.

Getting through the door

All this discussion about museum amenities begs the question: can everyone enjoy them? Visitors with mobility challenges and small children need to be able to get through the front door, and access the cafes, bathrooms, shops, and rest areas once they’re inside.

Should looking for an accessible toilet in the cafe feel like a search for the Holy Grail? 

The way to peoples’ hearts is through their stomachs (and bladders and feet). Many visitors spend a lot of time in the museum cafe, so it’s important to get it right.

Museums already rule at inspiring visitors through exhibits and tours. Now it’s time to expand our kingdom into cafes and amenities, and conquer the hearts of hungry tourists everywhere.

written with 💖 by Ashleigh Hibbins

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Comments & Reactions

  1. James Bryant
    James Bryant
    January 30, 2019 at 12:47 pm

    I’m not sure Maslow’s hierarchy is the best framework for this discussion. In my experience, if you meet the accessibility, physical comfort and educational needs of the museum visitor, this can happen simultaneously. If arriving at a museum is an intensely welcoming, even heartwarming experience, it could week change a museum visitor’s entire outlook on education, even their outlook on life in general. No one should ever feel like they don’t belong in a museum audience. This is why there needs to be a unified approach to all “front of house” activities at museums.

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