The Known and Unknown
When one names the city of London, one’s mind naturally thinks of great cultural and historic sites. Whether it is the British Museum, Tower of London or Trafalgar Square, it has been argued that these are not sites that belong to London alone, but to the world. Beneath the list of the well-known however, there is the list of the obscure and hidden.
A recent trip to London afforded me the opportunity to visit one of these lesser known sites, the Leighton House Museum. The museum was the home of Frederic Leighton, one of the best known 19th century British artists. And although I like to fancy myself a museum goer and someone who is knowledgeable about art, he was a character that I was not familiar with.
Why I Love House Museums
Walking into the entry hallway of the house, one is hit with sensory overload. There are rich fabrics, elegant tiles, wonderful paintings and a sense that Leighton has just stepped out and that he will be back at any moment. A striking stuffed peacock on the stair’s landing eyes one’s every move as to say, “Yeah – I am watching you.” Historic houses have the ability to capture time and place in a way that even the best galleries cannot.
And even though it was a Saturday, I was the only visitor in the home. This luxury afforded me the opportunity to really explore uninterrupted. But I did find that there was not a single seat for sitting or a single interpretive guide that aided my visit. For the life of me all I wanted to do was to sit next to the bubbling fountain, underneath the beautiful ceiling and contemplate art and the other muses. But I could not because in part I was exhausted from a 12 hour flight and the peacock was really starting to give me the hairy eye ball.
Where I Found Comfort
I left the museum and wandered not too far to a coffee place called Starbucks. They offer a variety of espresso drinks along with an assortment of pastries and other snacks at a reasonable price. In comparison to the museum, this place was packed. Conversations were wild. And though it was crowded, there was plenty of comfortable seating and free wi-fi.
As I sat there trying to recharge my batteries I caught an usual scene. Two women sat near me, each taking time to apply make-up to the other. How strange I thought. The scene really made me pause.
What Do Museums Want?
I am not arguing that museums should strive to set up a Clinique counter on site but what I do ponder is, “How can museums create an environment where two women would feel comfortable enough to have a make-over session in public?” What has Starbucks done to create an atmosphere where one feels so welcome, so free to come in? Customers are using the space as a second home. Sure – their coffee is good but that is only part of the equation. After all if that were the whole answer, then Starbucks would be a walk-up counter.
Consider the two spaces: The museum is filled with great art that inspires. Starbucks is filled with cheap reproductions of contrived imagery. One is a local landmark that is unique to this neighborhood in London. One can be found in every community of the world. One is not being used fully by its community. One is a community centerpiece.
In the book, Great Good Place, the author argues that places can be used by people in ways that have nothing to do with their original purpose, such as coffeehouses that double as a make-over counter.
What is Right for Museums?
Not every activity is right for every museum. Museums have to build relationships in their community that are aligned with their mission and strategic goals. But this does not mean that museums can’t take chances. There are ways that fringe activities and programming may lead to meaning experiences for both the museum and the visitor. Chances are like gateways, until one walks through it, one is still on the outside. Museums can beneifit by just getting people to walk through the gate, that is the first step.