Museums want you to drop by, of course, but they also want you to linger, to explore, take your time — the whole afternoon, if possible. To this end, no respectable museum can be without cafes and shops to enhance the experience.
In fact, museum cafes, usually handily adjacent to the shop, often appeal to visitors as much as the exhibition they’ve been to see. It was certainly par for the course that a flash and luxurious restaurant/bar opened last year on the 51st floor of the Mori Tower in Tokyo’s new Roppongi Hills — right below the tower’s magnificent Mori Art Museum. Before that, the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, in the Takebashi district of Chiyoda Ward, had beckoned the gallery-going public with a new French restaurant.
Even in Ueno Park, the Taito Ward home of many long-established museums of art and science, the trend has been reflected in the renovation of these doughty institutions’ restaurants and cafes.
In February, Tokyo National Museum, which dates from 1872, re-opened its restaurant under the new name of L’accord. It remains under the management of Kanda-Seiyoken, one of the capital’s first restaurants catering to Western tastes that has been serving museum-goers there for nearly 40 years.
L’accord, on the ground floor of one of the museum buildings, is an exercise in stylish and modern interior design, with its large windows letting in ample sunlight and offering vistas of the garden’s rich greenery. The restaurant can currently accommodate 86 diners, but 32 outdoor seats will soon be added and more after that on the second-floor balcony.
The menu has also seen changes, says Takahisa Obayashi, the restaurant’s manager. “Basically we offer French-style dishes just as we did when the restaurant was named Kanda-Seiyoken,” Obayashi says. “But with older visitors in mind, we have included some dishes on the menu to suit traditional Japanese taste. Also, to make the menu healthier, we’ve added many dishes that feature vegetables and less oil.”
According to Obayashi, one of the restaurant’s aims is to enrich people’s museum-visiting experience, and the museum staff would agree that the restaurant’s role has become increasingly important.
“Currently, visitors look for more from a museum than just a place to enjoy works of art,” says Maki Kobayashi, head of the museum’s PR section. “So we thought we would have more appeal if we also had a nice space where people could enjoy meals and relax.”
As a rule at major museums in Tokyo, visitors are attracted to large temporary exhibitions that feature well-known foreign masterpieces, rather than the institution’s standing collections. Tokyo National Museum is no exception in this respect, says Kobayashi.
For example, a two-month exhibition there in 1974 that included “La Jaconde,” better known as the “Mona Lisa,” drew a record 1.5 million people to see Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece. More recently, an exhibition in 2000 titled “Egyptian Civilization” lured 622,000 people in two months. “Otherwise, however, visitor numbers have for many years tended to average out at around 1 million a year,” Kobayashi says.
Though it is much smaller than the likes of the Louvre in Paris or New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Kobayashi hopes that her museum’s standing collection will also draw more visitors, and the new restaurant is part of the plan for achieving that goal.
“Often, people come to see our special exhibitions, take about three hours to see the exhibits, and then feel so exhausted that they leave without going to see the permanent collection. We hope the new restaurant will provide an enjoyable environment in which people can take a break when art-watching for a day, while giving them another reason to come here,” she says.
Tokyo National Museum is not the only Ueno Park institution that has spruced up its restaurants and menus. Over at the National Science Museum, which is well-known for its prehistoric collections, Musee Basara Ueno, a restaurant offering both Western-style and Japanese dishes, opened last year. Since then, its unique menu, which reflects what people see in the museum’s special exhibition, has been a hit with visitors of all ages.
How about a “dinosaur-egg croquette”? The fist-size, creamy concoction, served with a boiled quail’s egg, is especially popular with children. They are encouraged to look at the two items on their plate then imagine the quail’s egg enlarged to the size of a chicken’s egg and the croquette enlarged to the same extent so that it becomes the size of a dinosaur’s egg.
When the museum held an exhibition on the theme of earthquakes, fried catfish was on the menu, as these fish are said to sense temblors and wiggle before they happen. Similarly, an exhibition about the Maya inspired a curry menu featuring five kinds of ancient rice.
Corny as this approach may sound, a restaurant spokeswoman pointed out that such culinary novelties have struck a chord with the public. “In fact, some visitors now come to the museum just to have lunch,” she said.
According to Haruko Yamashita, editor-in-chief of the bimonthly museum magazine Musee, the rise in the importance of museum cafes and restaurants indicates a gradual but profound change in outlook.
“Japanese museums, especially public museums, typically existed as institutions to conduct research and conserve their collections within an alloted budget,” she says. “But now they have started to focus more on improving their total service. That is partly because they have become independent administrative bodies forced to give more consideration to their balance sheets.”
According to Yamashita, museums once thought of themselves primarily as educational institutions. “They are now obliged to reevaluate their quality as service institutions as well,” she explained. Consequently, restaurants in museums, once regarded as a minor service, have risen in priority. “For visitors, exhibits and cafes are equally important,” she says. “The museums now seem to have noticed this.”