Museum Musings: Exhibition Labels and the Curator+

+These musings were honed after many years of working in, teaching about, and visiting museums and gallery exhibits in many parts of the world. My highly subjective (in other words, opinionated) observations follow.

Let’s talk about the curator’s role in writing exhibition labels. Of late, actually for quite a while, I’ve noticed a trend in contemporary art exhibits; they are devoid of any type of labeling.

I learned the classic hierarchy of labels in the classroom, through work, and by visiting museums (nothing like a busman’s holiday*).The pecking order generally follows a similar headline style used by journalists.

*A vacation that involves doing the same thing you do at work is a busman’s holiday, an all-too common practice of museum professionals.

A wall text often opens the exhibit and introduces viewers to the curator’s overall approach and point of view in assembling the artwork on display. Section labels provide content that might provoke the visitor to think about or engage with the artwork. Descriptive labels provide individualized information about each artwork or artist. Finally, an object label tells visitors the name of the artist, the title, the material used, and more. There it is … Label Writing 101.

This pattern is decidedly not what Constant Companion and I saw at “Witness,” a very recent exhibit at one of our younger local galleries, quasi museums. Featured was a group five contemporary African and African Diaspora artists projecting, as the curator wrote in an accompanying broad sheet, “a profound understanding of the internationalism of contemporary African art.” Additional text on the single-sided sheet relying on current, all-too popular, sometime meaningless, rhetoric stated that the artists were all “navigating the saturation of globalization from a postcolonial perspective.”

Other accompanying or explanatory texts offered by the curator, but not visibly supported by the artwork included: “…retraces a path towards an accessible but still African origin.” And, “…their creative visions are aligned in the unapologetic work of historical and cultural excavation and repair.”

Aside from this piece of paper, no labels accompanied the exhibit. The broad sheet, available at the gallery desk, included the verbose interpretation of the artwork and brief yet wordy introductions to the artists and their approaches. A small numbered map of the space and information about each artwork filled the second side of the sheet.

The following are some examples of what visitors could read about the artists or their work.  Brooklyn-based Ethiopian born artist Tariku Shiferaw’s new body of work was described as a “dense layering of material(s).” The three acrylic-on-canvas pieces on display, however, were not what not what was described on the typed sheet.

Tariku Shiferaw, Kenya, 2020

Chris Soal reuses discarded materials such as toothpicks and bottle caps to create tactile Sculptures.

Soal Chris, Detail from Even revolutions don’t cause change. Change causes revolutions, 2021

Again, quoting the curator’s text, Soal “examine(s) the socio-political context of their making whilst highlighting the histories embedded in the round and disposable material.” The large toothpick piece, a graceful, intricate mass of undulating patterns and variegated colors, hid no higher, denser social meaning from me.

Soal Chris, The life you save may be your own, 2021

More examples of the liberal use of empty, yet heavily weighted buzzwords to characterize artwork in the exhibit follow. Angela Ferreira, according to brief the curatorial text, “addresses the perpetual impact of colonialism and postcolonialism on contemporary society …” through her video artwork. Nigerian artist DaaPo Reo “weaves sociocultural, economic, and political commentaries into his mixed media flag textile installations.” A curtain of beer bottles strung on rope by South African artist Lungiswa Gqunta “engage[d] in the complexities of the South African postcolonial cultural and political landscape.”

As an OG (yes, a few years ago, I was actually respectfully addressed as an OG by visitors to our city with home we were kibbitzing), I have come to dislike much of the language adopted by many of today’s curators: postcolonial, decolonialize, authentic, agency, and more seen above. These words may carry some significant meaning. In the context of introducing or explaining artwork, however, they represent the heavy-handed voice of a curator who thinks he/she are guiding viewers to see and think.

In exhibits such as “Witness,” the curator creates the conceptual and rhetorical framework around which the artwork was chosen. The voice woefully missing in this interpretive (or lack of interpretive approach) is that of the artist/s. Their voices, represented by artist’s statements would gone far to help me place their artwork into an understandable whole. Their knowledge has been overshadowed by that of the curator and the artists have been robbed of their agency (another word I’m not crazy about).  

Storytelling and meaning making,* two older buzzwords, were tossed around by curators a decade or so ago. In the not-too-distant-past, a curator assembled a collection of artwork/artifacts to convey meaning and interpret the art, the intentions of the artists, and guide visitors while building understanding and appreciation on a number of levels and also igniting curiosity. For quite some time, voices other than the curator have been in the forefront of museum critique and discourse. 

*I am not crazy of these two terms either; they seem to aggregate and categorize a natural creative process.

Constant Companion, my listening post and steadying force, asked what’s my point as these musings have slowly been working their way out of the tips of my finger. Hmm, the point is what does the visitor take away from an exhibit. Is an overly complex, rhetorical web spun that is unsupported by the artwork viewed by the visitor? Or does the visitor neglect to pick up that lone broadsheet covered by a complex and dense test? What do you think?

4 comments

  1. For some reason it won’t allow me to comment above the line. Just know that I think that you are amazing. I’m getting a lot a education and pleasure from your blogs ❤️

    Myrna

    >

    Like

  2. In a museum or large gallery, labels next to each work is a must. I do think full labels next to each work in a smaller gallery sometimes can take away from the aestetics of an exhibition, especially when many exhibits now include installations and non-traditional art works. In a salon exhibitions I have made wall or floor “silhouette maps” with a list of works which work really well, but you do sometimes have to point that out to the visitor. In a large group show in a smaller gallery, I have made take aways with each work listed, and small label with just the artist’s name next to each work, sometimes, name, title, date, and more information on the take away. With technology, the take away does not only have to be a piece of paper, a QR code is helpful as well.

    That being said, a visitor to an exhibition, left to their own devices, may not know how or where to get this information and that is where a gallery attendant/educator/curator etc is always neccessary, especially for those who are not as familiar with art galleries/museums, or those with disabilities. Some gallery directors and curators are coming from a place where they assume the visitor is familiar with how a gallery works and how it displays and provides information. And, to top it off, human engagement between staff and visitors is lacking in many of these spaces.

    My two cents.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s