In late December, I visited the 21C Museum Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. It is a strange hybrid: a hotel that also functions as a museum, with a permanent collection, rotating exhibitions, and galleries open to the public. The largest exhibition on view in Louisville, Aftermath: Witnessing War, Countenancing Compassion, included work by established artists such as Carrie Mae Weems, Kara Walker, and Yinka Shonibare.
Museum education programs often ask students to compare museums and other public spaces. How is a museum like a park? A mall? A church? A library? But I don’t think I’ve ever been asked to compare a museum to a hotel before. Perhaps this is because a hotel is not really a public space: rather, an (expensive) hotel is a semi-private, inherently elitist space, charging large sums for access to its facilities. The public spaces are liminal, the threshold between the private spaces of the guest rooms and the public world outside the hotel.
What does it mean to site a museum in a hotel? What implications does this have for the museum experience?
Theoretically, a museum in a hotel offers an experience to people who might not otherwise be museum-goers. 21C is free, and there are no security guards checking bags at the door. This makes it democratic in a way that many museums (especially art museums) are not. Further, it fills a gap: it places an art museum downtown — particularly notable as Louisville’s Speed Art Museum is closed until 2016.
A museum in a hotel might also have something to teach us about hospitality,since hotels are part of the “hospitality industry.” But as a 21C museum visitor (rather than a hotel guest), the galleries seemed strangely empty of staff: I did not see any guards, nor were there volunteers or museum specialists to guide me or answer questions about the exhibition. When I had a question about the museum, I asked at the concierge desk; they handed me a brochure, but were not able to answer questions about the museum or the exhibitions.
At least in this case, the museum / hotel hybrid feels like a hotel filled with art – some of it fun, some of it interesting – rather than a museum. Context is important, and art in a hotel is like art in a living room, blending into the decor. It is hard to tell what is a gallery space and what is a hallway; where the art ends and the elevator begins. This may be purposeful, problematizing museum practice and contemporary art. But it feels like compromise, art in a space where it is secondary to the more commercial, more lucrative business of renting rooms to business people and tourists.
21C has art in the rooms; when I asked a colleague who has stayed in the hotel about the art in her room, she was unable to remember anything about the specific pieces that were in her room. Likewise, when I browsed rooms at the 21C hotel, the list of amenities featured “original art” sandwiched between “Malin + Goetz bath amenities” and “plush robes.” Art was reduced to an amenity, without further descriptors.
Museums are paired with many other spaces these days: witness the library gallery or the airport museum, for example. This is evidence of the popularity and appeal of museums — imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And it complements a democratizing movement in contemporary art and culture, as demonstrated by artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s 2009 project Everything is Museum. But in some ways it weakens the power of what we offer. If everything is museum, what is a museum?