Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Does McDonald's in the Louvre assault the Museum's integrity, or broaden its audience?

Maybe it is just me, but the fact that McDonald's will now be serving Le Big Mac in the mall below the Louvre, does not seem like that big of a deal. In fact, the uproar among both museum professionals and frequent visitors seems like yet another example of the museum faithful giving lip service to the idea that museums are for everyone, while actually preferring to keep their favorite museums as high-brow and inaccessible to the average Joe as possible.

The mall beneath the Louvre is operated by a property management company completely separate from the Museum's administration. According to Louvre officials, it was the property company's decision to let McDonald's in, not the Louvre's. They already had a Starbucks, why not a McDonald's?

Rather than haughtily distancing themselves from this development, the Louvre should be taking a long hard look at the audience they most need to serve going forward, identifying that portion of reluctant visitors whose only obstacle is seeing the Museum as a place truly interested in them, and then embracing the fact that a new McDonald's in the existing food court may be a convenient and reasonable way to make those people feel more comfortable.

So, now there are going to be greasy burgers and fries in the adjacent, subterranean mall, so what? No one is requiring the deeply cultured museum elite to eat at McDonald's. Visitors may still choose from several other eateries in the mall, or head out to the nearest Paris bistro to enjoy a delicate foie gras and salad. Has that much truly changed?

I can understand that McDonald's does not fit within the traditional mold of the exquisite museum brand administered by the Louvre. However, instead of condemning McDonald's as an icon of bad taste, perhaps the Museum should think outside of the velvet-lined box, deciding to see this as an opportunity to serve the ideal of being a museum for all. Call me pollyanna if you like, but I learned something about the essence of public museums in my very first job out of college. As I mentioned in my first post to this blog, I worked on the Artrain, traveling the country bringing art to communities without art museums. It was during our stop in Williamson, West Virginia when I met a little boy who forever changed my perspective.

We were stationed for a week in Williamson, the largest town in an area known mainly for the rivalry between the Hatfields and McCoys. During that week a certain little boy about seven years old visited us every day, waiting in line for up to an hour and half to gain free access to the museum. I can no longer remember the boy's name, although I knew it at the time, but I can see his sweet, dirty, little face in my mind as clear as the day I met him. Each of the first four days he came alone, wearing tattered clothes, and always barefoot. Despite his rough appearance, the child was pleasant and mannerly, and always behaved himself inside the galleries. On the final day of our engagement in Williamson, our boss from HQ in Ann Arbor traveled down for a visit. Just as he had each of the previous days, the little boy arrived mid-afternoon to see the artwork, but that day was Saturday, and he brought his parents and baby sister along with him.

For all of the young staff he was a triumph-- sharing his passion with his parents! Unfortunately, to our uber-administrator boss, he was unacceptable-- barefoot. She walked straight over to him, addressed his parents, told them to get out of line, and said they could return when he was properly attired. Barefoot children would not be permitted in the museum. I was horrified. As staff, we all were. With a brief look around at each other, a reassuring nod, and a swift step in the direction of the little family beginning their walk home, we sought to make amends. Two of us apologized to the boy's parents, explaining that our boss had not been there all week, and thus had not been properly introduced to their son. We called him our biggest fan, and invited them to step back into the line. It was clear that the boss lady was ticked at our insubordinate response, but the tough coal miners in line were angry too, just not at us. She backed off and the family went through the Artrain without another word.

It sounds like a story you would read to a child at bedtime, too sentimental to be true, but it is true, every word. I have no idea what happened to him and whether visiting the Artrain changed his life in some meaningful way, but he certainly changed mine. He instilled in me a greater sense of what it means to serve an ideal, to be mission-driven, to be visitor-focused.

I was outraged when I read that Jean-Michel Raingeard, President of the Federation of French Friends of Museums and European Vice President of the World Federation of Friends of Museums, is worried that "museum directors seem to care more about the number of people they attract rather than the quality." Wow. It takes an enormous amount of hubris to be so incredibly frank and openly elitist with CNN. Let us hope he does not speak for the majority of museum "friends," or the rest of us may wonder if we are even worthy of admission. If I am not on the major contributors list, am I not of sufficient quality? Certainly, the Louvre will remain at the pinnacle of art historical excellence with or without a McDonald's in its basement, but query whether or not it can truly be one of the best museums if it only serves the world's consumer elite.

Please click here for a link to the story on CNN.com.

Agree or disagree with me? Please share your comments below.

2 comments:

  1. I agree Jennifer. If a museum's goal is to cater to a higher class of people then Keep the pieces in the hands of private collectors. I had always thought museums were fascinating places to visit on family vacations and trips, where art, history and music could be shared and experienced by all to learn and appriciate. It would seeem to me the more people that share these experiences will help to carry the enlightenment of those before us into each generation to come.

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  2. I love this post, but I still choose chose "assault on integrity". I hear what you're saying about broadening the audience, but really, will having a McDonalds in the Louvre do that? Or, will it just offer a fattening, greasy alternative for people who were going to attend the Louvre anyhow? I just don't think a Big Mac is a draw to see the Mona Lisa. Making her more accessible and easy to see in the museum - now that's a draw! Just my $.02. Thanks for writing this - I never would have known about it, or thought about it otherwise!!!

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