Artist Cynthia Consentino’s “The Women’s Room” (2005) at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin (courtesy the John Michael Kohler Arts Center)

There are many reasons to bemoan the decline of the chain bookstore, not least of which is the loss of easily identifiable venues for decent public restrooms. With this precious resource siphoned from society, we are collectively more bereft of culture and utilities in one tidy package. But wait! A recent poll by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) asked museum professionals to submit their nominations for best museum bathrooms, and the results prove that Marcel Duchamp was only the first, but not the last, to find art in the commode. Joseph O’Neill, a content manager and editor for the AAM, dutifully compiled the results.

“Every month, we put out questions for museum people to connect around, and we were surprised as anyone to find out how much enthusiasm there is for this fun topic,” O’Neil told Hyperallergic. “But the responses we’ve gotten suggest bathrooms might be an underappreciated part of the visitor experience when it comes to belonging, inspiration, accessibility, and even education.”

The most-mentioned nominee was Smith College, home to two famous artist-designed bathrooms: The men’s bathroom was designed by Sandy Skoglund while the women’s bathroom designed by Ellen Driscoll. In fact, there is an entire Instagram account dedicated to the bathrooms of Smith College, seemingly for a good reason.

Artist Ann Agee’s “Sheboygan Men’s Room” at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin (courtesy the John Michael Kohler Arts Center)
Matt Nolen, “The Social History of Architecture (men’s washroom)” (1999) at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin (courtesy the John Michael Kohler Arts Center)

Next up is the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC) in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Obviously, bathrooms are going to be a point of pride for an institution founded by the manufacturer of bathroom implements, including sinks, toilets, and more. But JMKAC has gone above and beyond, with the “Sheboygan Men’s Room,” furnished with hand-painted porcelain tile and bathroom fixtures by once-artist-in-residence Ann Agee; Cynthia Consentino’s “The Women’s Room”; and Matt Nolen’s “The Social History of Architecture (men’s washroom).” That’s in addition to commissioned washrooms at the Art Preserve on the first and third floors. On a best bathrooms list, no one wants to be #2, but JMKAC proves that second is the best!

Coming in third, the Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, Virginia, garnered praise for its bathroom series, A Head of Its Time: A Brief History of Going at Sea. It’s a look at how sailors “made do” in a time before flushing toilets, and even toilet paper. Bathroom reading material par excellence!

One of Snøhetta’s restrooms at SFMOMA (photo by Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA)

Of course, modern artists know that everything can be art, so it’s no surprise that SFMOMA is placed fourth on the list for its series of monochrome bathrooms in different colors on every floor, designed by the architecture firm Snøhetta.

“This one makes me feel like I’m peeing in a Kubrick movie,” commented Instagrammer Gabriel Toya-Meléndez.

The Phobia bathroom, Glore Psychiatric Museum (image courtesy St. Joseph Museum)

Fifth on the list is the Glore Psychiatric Museum, located on the site of a former psychiatric hospital in St. Joseph, Missouri. If that’s not enough to make you poop your pants, the themed bathrooms are full of mind games, including hauntings, phobias, and worst of all, Sigmund Freud.

“We are super excited to be included in the best bathrooms, because ours are pretty awesome!” Kami Jones, in communications for the St. Joseph Museum, told Hyperallergic.

In sixth place, there was a collective mention of various 21c Museum Hotel locations. Never content to limit visitor experience to the galleries, all 21c locations feature art that extends into elevators, on the hotel art TV channel, through lobbies, and yes — even into the bathrooms.

The washroom display of chamber pots at the Charleston Museum (courtesy the Charleston Museum)

The Charleston Museum snagged seventh place with its cheeky chamber pot installation in the restroom. On brand and on the pot!

Artist and filmmaker John Waters at the opening of the John Waters Restrooms at the Baltimore Museum of Art (courtesy the Baltimore Museum of Art)

The Baltimore Museum of Art celebrated hometown hero John Waters, granting his request that the museum’s bathrooms be renamed in his honor in exchange for his donation of his private art collection to the museum. The result is four new all-gender washrooms.

“Public restrooms make all people nervous,” Waters said at the opening of the new facilities. “They’re unpredictable. They’re also fueled by accidents, just like my favorite contemporary art.”

The Denver Art Museum closed came in ninth with its set of Singing Sinks, designed by Denver artist Jim Green, also known for a Laughing Escalator at the Colorado Convention Center. The sinks are installed in the second-floor bathroom at the Martin Building Welcome Center, and sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” while they run.

“You can get the sinks to sing in canon if you time it right,” nominator Melody Lowe told the AAM.

Finally, the Carle Museum rounds out the top 10. The picture book museum was founded by Eric Carle, author of the iconic children’s book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” and apparently he is most proud that all the urinals feature a tiny fly.

The industrial-chic vibe at the Mass MoCA bathroom (courtesy Mass MoCA)
The green wall at the Longwood Gardens restrooms (image courtesy Longwood Gardens)

These were just the top of the barrel for museum bathrooms, with other nominees including Mass MoCA’s authentic industrial vibe, preserved from its roots as a factory, and the Green Wall Restrooms at Longwood Gardens, which goes the other way, featuring a lush wall of vegetation. Longwood Gardens eclipsed the museum category altogether in 2014, named Best Restrooms in America by Cintas.

Wherever you choose to get your culture, you’ll be relieved to know that some institutions take their private facilities just as seriously as their public ones!

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...

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