Crap Food No Longer The Norm At Museums

It all started with a damn good slice of pound cake at the British Museum in London. Then I wondered why the bowl of corn chowder I devoured at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art cafeteria, Lickety Split, was the best thing I’d eaten in weeks. And by the time I had a plate of mouth-watering chipotle chicken quesadillas at the Getty Museum cafeteria in L.A. several weeks later, I wondered what the hell was going on. Museum cafeteria food is supposed to be overpriced crap, right?

Ordinarily, I hate to get stuck eating at tourist attractions. In December, on an excursion to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, for example, I neglected to pack drinks or lunch for my kids and was distressed to find $5.19 fountain drinks (one size only), cups of soup for $7 and a selection of crummy looking sandwiches that cost roughly the same as Burundi’s per capita GDP. This is more or less what I expect from dining establishments at any sort of tourist attraction: a rip off.But there appears to be a real trend toward good, moderately priced food at a host of art museums I’ve visited over the last year. Aside from the otherworldly chowder, Lickety Split at the Mass MOCA in the Berkshires has tasty burritos, great coffee, microbrews and fresh baked goods. The British Museum has cafés featuring good sandwiches, soups, pies and baked goods. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has two gourmet restaurants, a café and a cafeteria, all of which looked appetizing to me on a visit last summer. And the Art Institute of Chicago has a pretty decent cafeteria, a café, plus a fine dining option.

But my favorite museum culinary experiences in the last year came courtesy of the Getty Museum and the Milwaukee Art Museum. The Getty has a few dining options, ranging from casual to gourmet, but I was hard pressed to make a selection at their cafeteria, which is loaded with good-looking, healthy food. If the weather is good, as it usually is in L.A., you can sit outside and enjoy a lovely view along with a good, reasonably priced meal (see video below).

Café Calatrava at the Milwaukee Art Museum offers fine dining with a view of Lake Michigan (see photo on the right). The seasonally inspired menu is created to match the museum’s featured exhibits. When we visited in December during the Treasures of Kenwood House exhibit, there was a British theme featuring offerings like ale steamed mussels, ploughman’s lunch, wild boar and sage bangers and mash and Cornish beef and veggie pasties. I had the pasties, which were first rate, and my wife had something called Col. Mustard’s chicken, which came with some tasty dauphinoise potatoes.

I hope the experiences I’ve had at these museums is indeed a trend and the days of having to smuggle food into museums and other tourist attractions are numbered. Let us know if you’ve had good, bad or indifferent dining experiences at museums and other tourist sites around the world.

[Photo credits: Getty Center (sea scallops), Dave Seminara]

Medieval manuscripts in Los Angeles and London

Two major exhibitions on opposite sides of the globe are focusing on the art of medieval manuscript illumination.

At the Getty Center in Los Angeles, a show has just opened highlighting the burst in creativity and education in what is popularly called the Gothic period. Gothic Grandeur: Manuscript Illumination, 1200–1350 features books from this important period, when educated Europe created a huge demand for illustrated manuscripts.

Looking at these works of art instantly dispels the popular notion that the Middle Ages were a low period in civilization. In fact, it was a time of great artistic creativity and innovation. Even though the Church tried to create an orthodox mode of thinking, science and basic questions of philosophy were able to advance, albeit slowly. Even existentialism had a place. Just read the opening chapter of St. Augustine’s Confessions if you don’t believe me.

The exhibition mainly draws on Getty’s impressive permanent collection, including recent prize acquisitions such as the Abbey Bible, one of the finest Gothic illuminated manuscripts ever made. Also of interest is the Northumberland Bestiary, a mid-13th century encyclopedia of animals.

In London, the British Library is running Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. This collection of 150 manuscripts from the library’s collection date from the 8th to the 16th century and depict royalty through the ages. Some were even owned by kings and queens, such as a psalter with marginal notations by Henry VIII. The exhibition not only covers the royalty about and for whom the books were created, but also the artists who create them. Not all were monks as commonly believed. Many books were made by professional freelance artists who hustled for commissions from the rich and powerful. Not much has changed!

Gothic Grandeur: Manuscript Illumination, 1200–1350 has two installations, one running to 26 February 2012 and the next running from 28 February to 13 May 2012. Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination runs until 13 March 2012.

Photo courtesy British Library.