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The museum cafe is a piece of cake... if you get the ingredients right says Gabriel Murray

Gabriel Murray
Gabriel Murray

Don’t design a café like a museum - how that was one has come back to bite us on the bun.

As customer experience in the physical space goes modern, museum design looks like it has surpassed the design of shops, malls and department stores. I hate myself for banging on about this, but retail space has become a stagnant, dead, boring monotony of seen-before displays and ill-considered layouts, and lacklustre customer journeys.

Museum experiences were once condemned as all of the above by designers and retail marketers. But I now believe, certainly in the recent institutions I’ve visited, that as customer attractions these spaces are doing a great job in overall design and customer interaction, perhaps let down only by the obligatory food and beverage (F&B) offer and coffee shop that doesn’t always enhances the experience.

Now, is a visitor to a museum a customer? Increasingly so – they are ‘culture customers,’ a new breed hungry for a new experience. More on that later. The institutions have marketed the spaces as attractions, as events, as cultural centres that service local communities as well as creating visitor attractions giving emotive ‘wow’ experiences. Institutions took a leap of faith in design, in creativity, to establish true destination appeal for an audience needing intrigue and exploration.

Museums are total flex spaces. They can work within confines to allow varied exhibit ‘pop up’s’ and are curated to create a buzz to drive visitor footfall – all good retail speak here. Design, in most if not all cases, has made true landmark statements not only in the spaces but also in the design of the exhibits, of the installations and the displays. Design has been used as the differentiator that creates the appeal, establishes excitement and the impetus to go and see, be part of, be engaged,  be entertained and educated.

Now there is a double-edged sword in all of this. There is always that elephant in the room – and I don’t mean the displays. Revenue needs to be generated – not only from entrance to the exhibitions and through sales of merchandise at the shop, but also but from the contributions made from the F&B and coffee shop.

These seem to me, in most cases, to let the experience down with a scattering of tables and chairs within a canteen-style counter operation (not that I have anything against a big queue at a counter). 

Maybe because they are an afterthought, a necessary evil to keep visitors in the building, their location is often out of the way or in the wrong place, as an annex to the main building or in an odd corner. They suffer in most cases from institutional F&B operators that have taken over a space and seem just to populate it with cranky tables and chairs in a very piecemeal, badly re-purposed way. I realise that the grandiose buildings in which cultural activities exist are often housed need to squeeze an F&B experience in, but these need to be better considered. Even well-located F&B offers in well-designed spaces often suffer from lack of care and consideration of customer engagement and the overall offer. 

This is where institutions can learn from retail. Whilst the exhibition visitor may be transient, the offer still has to be a compelling one. It can’t be a snip and ping meal served so hot it takes the roof of your mouth off; it can’t just be a cup of coffee and a slice of carrot cake in a lovely room with wonky tables and noisy chairs anymore. There’s real opportunity to capture the ‘culture customer’ coming not only to view but to socialise, work, shop and connect with the community, not just the destination.

The F&B element of the attraction is as important as the attraction itself, if not more so now. It can make or degenerate discredit the reputation of the institution, fulfilling a wider role than sustenance. The savvy, expressive ‘culture customer’ now has many options and generates comment on the whole visitor experience. Indeed a bad coffee in a bad environment can effect the mood toward the venue itself

External F&B operators, along with the institutions and venues, need to work with designers to create totally defined F&B offerings that enhance the overall experience. These spaces need to offer a design that satisfies the expectations of the culture customer, is comprehensively considered and in some way related to the venue. They need to inspire and welcome beyond being places to meet to discuss the exhibits, responding to the shift in institutions’ roles to fulfill a wider societal role. They are becoming destinations in their own right and the chance to capture the culture customer, with cake, counts.

Gabriel Murray is chief creative officer Studio 48 London.