DISCUSSED: Gewgaws, “Thick” Description, YBAs, King Tut, CGI, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (of Red Telephone Booth Fame), J.M.W. Turner, Art Heists, Chantal Mouffe, Motorcycles, Shakespeare, Golfing Umbrellas, German Teens, Feelings of Non-Difference, Starbucks


I haven’t bought anything in a while. I’m standing in the gift store of the Tate Modern museum in London—the store is housed in a room 115 feet high, 75 feet wide, and almost 500 feet long—and I am shopping. There are items available for my desk (gewgaws and molded-plastic paper clip holders), for my body (witty sayings on T-shirts and pullovers), for the weather (colorful umbrellas), and for the kids (challenging puzzles, card games to increase cultural awareness). But nothing appeals, quite, and so I leave the store and begin to walk up the enormous ramp to the building’s entrance/exit before stopping midway. At the top of the ramp, a couple of children are playing; they’re rolling coins down the concrete, the sound of the money ringing in the echoing hall as though into the deep drawer of a cash register. Mostly, the money veers off to the side, but occasionally a coin rolls toward someone who hears the change coming and, startled, steps aside.

One child, perhaps too small to handle currency, has decided to roll himself down the concrete ramp as though down a grassy hill. Other people are walking backward up the ramp as they leave—many do in this building—to see what they have just seen. Still others sprawl on their backs and lie there, apparently stunned or simply tired.

A refitted industrial space, the Tate Modern appeals to one’s sense of historical scale—that is, of a time when enormous buildings were conceived to dramatize human ambition. What was once commercial and industrial has become public, the entrance free to all who desire an experience of the post-industrial sublime. And yet the building resists its urban context—according to one of the visitors I interviewed, from among thirty or so over a two-day span. Jennifer Franklin, a teacher from Toronto, tells me, “It’s the opposite of London… congested, polluted… the space feels light and airy.” Daniel Freidus of San Francisco, who works in telecommunications management, reports that the building is “fine for what it is…. I think that it looks like a hangar, which is fine for a museum.”

Although the Tate Modern might look like a hangar—a truly stunning hangar—the space functions more like an airport. Or an airport and a shopping mall. Which means that the Tate is neither church nor library: in fact, almost all of the megamuseums, the destinations worldwide of millions of art tourists, have abandoned their roles as churches and libraries, in favor of a more democratic approach to cultural commerce. Perhaps this notion of democracy is different from what we’ve been taught to expect, but it’s democracy nonetheless, and our museums are participating in how democracy is changing.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

Alan Michael Parker is the author or editor of nine books, including a novel, Cry Uncle, and a forthcoming collection of poems, Elephants & Butterflies. His work on museums includes essays on the Bellagio Gallery in Las Vegas and the Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta.

News on Facebook Photos on Instagram Stuff on Pinterest Announcements by RSS Sounds on Soundcloud Exclusives on Tumblr Updates on Twitter

Subscribe to our mailing list