Sunday, December 21, 2008

Why Can't Museums be More Like City Markets?

I love all kinds of food markets: outdoor farmers markets and particularly, big city indoor markets--Toronto's St. Lawrence Market, Pike Place Market in Seattle, fish vendors under the bridge in Venice. That means one of the nicest parts of picking up my daughter from college is a visit to the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. As I shopped yesterday, I realized that this kind of market has much to teach museums. What do they do well?

It's friendly--everyone can go
City markets like this one are not just the province of the educated and well-to-do, or the old but not the young, or whatever. It really does represent a cross-section of a community, I think.

Knowledge is freely shared
At the cheese-mongers, long detailed labels explain each cheese's provenance and taste--but that's not all. When I ask about different cheeses, the guy behind the counter takes thoughtful time to share his knowledge--and a taste of each. Sort of like a "curator of cheese" who loves working on the museum floor.

It embraces diversity
I'm sure the stands at the market are somewhat different than fifty years ago. Falafel and sushi now reside among the booths run by Amish and Mennonite farmers from rural Pennsylvania. All kinds of people working together (as opposed, I must say, to a recent major museum visit where I observed that all the professional staff I saw, wearing name tags, were white, and all the guards working on the floor were people of color). There probably is stratification at the market and I suspect change may have come slowly, but change has happened.

Tradition matters
At the butcher's I went to, most of the butchers were over 60; and a couple were, I'd guess, over 70. But at the same time, a young guy was learning the ropes about cutting meat and working with customers. The informal passing of knowledge from one generation to another is a hallmark of those who work there.

A market engages all your senses
It does matter what it looks like. The booths don't rely on their reputations to attract customers. Meat, produce, cheeses, and more are all displayed beautifully. You taste, smell, touch and hear--in addition to the colorful and creative visual displays.

It encourages conversation, connections and independent learning
A butcher teased me about my lack of meat-cooking knowledge--and then came out from behind the counter to give me a hug as he jokingly apologized for teasing me. I overheard other customers discussing what to make for Christmas dinner, or any of a number of other topics. (and by the way, absolutely encourages return visitation, made more meaningful by those conversations). I didn't have to take a guided tour of that meat counter, but it was my choice to learn how to cook that leg of lamb and why a leg is a better choice for me than a crown roast. Free-choice learning at its best.

And, by the way, it's free!

From top to bottom:
Reading Terminal Market sign
Center food area, Reading Terminal Market, December 20, 2008
Cheese case, by camera_obscura, via Flickr
Two of the meat guys, December 20, 2008
Tri-color cabbages at the market, by rockamandy, via Flickr


An Xiao said...

LOVE this. What a great analogy. What if museums set up "outdoor markets", but with exhibitions rather than food?

Integrated Systems said...

There's one fundamental and important difference: the market is oriented toward concrete consumption, not simply experience. All the education available is directed to that end - making a sale, and perhaps enlisting a loyal repeat customer. How museums can do this as effectively when we are generally purveying experience and education rather than something the visitors physically take in, and/or take home, is the challenge. Are the experiences we offer compelling, interactive, and valuable enough in themselves to be the main attraction, fully replacing that smorgasbord of things you can taste and, ultimately, own?

Linda said...


Great points--although perhaps we're really looking for those repeat customers as well. And I think in a way, those museum take-home experiences can be as meaningful as that great piece of cheese. But to that end, I'd love to see more museums allow photography--so more visitors can "take home" and share that experience the same way they could with food.

Nina Simon said...

Great work, Linda. I am fascinated by the question of how to make museums "like" other things and have been playing with some design techniques for making it happen. You might be interested in this paper about how to make museums "like" various web-based applications, and these workshop slides on how to make them like... anything.