I want to burn the ubiquitous cardboard box. It’s usually covered in colourful cartoons of monkeys swinging in the jungle, and your child is invited to put five items inside, all of which taste rather like the cardboard container. Cheap crisps, curled sandwiches, processed cheese, crumbled crackers. The challenge isn’t choosing five, but a single one that’s remotely appetising.
Sadly, this box is found in museum cafes throughout Britain. These institutions may aim to raise our cultural awareness, but the food they provide for families is far from elevating.
It’s not like that elsewhere. Travel to Denmark and the town of Odense, birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, and you’ll discover that culture and cuisine aren’t cooked up in separate pots. At the café at The Tinderbox, a museum for children as well as adults, the menu is playful. The Princess on the Pea sandwich is slice upon slice of white bread, piled up like mini-mattresses, with all sorts of fillings and, of course, a pea under the lot. My seven year old ate every sheet, just to reach the bottom.
But back in Britain, there’s seldom any joy in eating in a museum, and seldom do you feel welcome. It’s rare to find a readily available jug of tap water. On a recent visit to the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London with another family, we couldn’t sit down together in the café because we needed more than one table.
Perhaps the answer is to pack your own lunch. Of course, you can’t nibble on a salami sandwich as you egg on the kids to appreciate Dali. Some museums provide rooms where you can eat – generally in the basement and lined with formica-topped tables. (It’s worth phoning first to find out if there’s such a place.) Others, such as London’s V&A, have beautiful outside courtyards if the weather is fine. But if it’s cold and wet (ideal museum-visiting weather), there’s often nowhere to go but to the café. Unlike lone adults, a family like ours might well visit two or three times during one visit, to take a short break.
If you get the catering right, you get the visit right, and more of us will come more often, which is surely what every museum wants. Family-friendly food isn’t only good for your stomach. It’s good for your art.