Saturday, March 03, 2007

ISO Understanding: Rethinking Art Museum Labels

I don't usually fist-pump while reading the New York Times. But I’d been scribbling notes for an art museum label post for awhile, and then yesterday, the NY Times had a review of a new show at MOMA, Comic Abstraction. The review was harsh. And it ended with this:
No wonder it [MOMA] ends up showing shallow, label-dependent art rather than work that offers deeper, more contradictory encounters. Art becomes a kind of one-liner. The viewer looks a little, reads a label, says “I get it” and shuffles on. If you are new to art, you don’t know what you are missing. If you aren’t, you feel had.

This post is a cry for help from someone who wants to love art. Half the time, I’m the one who doesn’t know what I’m missing. The other half, I feel had. And I don’t blame the art. I blame the labels.

I was at MOMA last week for the first time in their new site. If you haven’t been, it’s a fabulous building stuffed with heavy hitters. I felt like a Midwesterner at the Oscars. Turn left: there’s Picasso! Turn right: there’s Marky Rothko! The collection is disaggregated, grouped by floor (Painting and Sculpture 1) rather than artist, movement, time period, or geography. That was interesting and somewhat challenging in itself. But the thing that challenged me most were the labels.

MOMA has standard art museum labels. Most featured Name of Artist, Name of Piece, Year of Execution, Materials. Period. Is this enough? I constantly found myself standing in front of a painting, wanting to connect with it, and not knowing where to start. When I asked an art museum educator about this (“How should I look at art?”), she said that I had to start a conversation with the piece. Sounds great. How do I start? “So, how’s it hanging?” I found myself listening to the audio pieces not so much for the information as for an excuse to keep standing there, to combat my body’s readiness to “shuffle on.”

How can labels help people have a deeper connection with art? Here are a couple of things I’d like to see:
  1. Labels that instruct you where and how to look. Sometimes I listened to the audio pieces meant for visitors who are blind. Those audio descriptions were lovingly detailed, and listening as I looked, I saw more and grew more interested. Most people aren’t educated in how to look at art. Should you take it all in at once? Should you read it like a story? Should you move around to see it from different angles? Many labels just give you more complementary information about the piece/artist rather than promoting looking more deeply at the piece. Perhaps a successful label is not one you read all the way through, but one you use like an IKEA manual, looking quizzically from it to the art and back again.
  2. Labels that answer the stupid questions in our heads. How long did it take this artist to make this piece? Did the artist like it? What do people love about this piece? When did the artist make it in his/her career? Who’s the girl in the painting? Why is there a weird smudge of red in the corner—is that a mistake? Why did the artist decide that this side is up?
  3. Labels that expose the curator’s thought process. One thing I wondered about a lot at MOMA was how they decided which pieces of art to put next to each other. Was it about color? Diversity? Space? I also wonder about how they choose frames for paintings, and the biggest question, how they decide which pieces to include at all. Is there some wacky donor behind it? Or something a curator advocated for against all odds? I loved the story I heard about how complex it was to house a painting that had been painted in chocolate. How about the challenges of putting up controversial pieces?
  4. Labels that tell contextualized stories and involve visitors. Both 2) and 3) above are really about this. At MOMA, sometimes I listened to the “teenager” and “kids” audio and enjoyed it more than the “adult” selections. When producing for/by kids, there was more of an emphasis on giving the feel of the piece—with music, stories about the artist, comments about other art the artist produced—and those context clues helped me step into the art more emotionally. Also, the teen selections often featured teenagers interviewing visitors about their reactions to the pieces. I loved that. Just hearing other people share their impressions stimulated reactions of my own. They gave me voices to discuss with and helped me start interacting with the piece.
There are surely other tools and methods beyond labels that could improve my art museum experience. But the labels are already there, and for the most part, they’ve been the same for so long. Please. I’m begging here. I want to fall in love with art. But right now, I’m fidgeting in the corner of the bar, unsure how to strike up that first conversation.

9 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Hey there.
I am an exhibit designer and artist living in San Antonio, and I dig your blog.
& I dig your investigation of art labels.

Part of me fights to ignore labels in an art museum. Good art shouldn't need accessories, right?

Another part of me desires better labels. Artist/year of production/materials/provenance are all good reference points, but I'm often left wanting.

A little context, an interesting story--I like a lot of the things you suggest. A morsel of trivia can really bring a piece into relief.

But I think a label needs to be brief brief brief. I'm don't go to museums to read text on a wall, so I deeply resent long labels. Additional information is available elsewhere. A well-produced audio tour can be treasure. One day, maybe museums will offer a menu of personalizable audio tours.

Finally, every good show has a catalog which can provide not only more context and storyline, and reveal a curator's process, but also a list of references for yet more literature should one find themselves wanting.


Nina Simon said...


Excellent point. Perhaps I should have added a fourth option: no labels. Ironically, long labels drive me crazy most in science museums, where I feel like every label is trying to explain away the gorgeous phenomena, instead of letting me experience it. But I realize that that belies the fact that in science museums, I feel comfortable and interested in tapping into the exhibits without explanation, but have a hard time doing so with art.

One of the questions here is whether museums' goal is to educate people about their content, or to just offer access to that content.

Maybe the best exercise would be to take all the labels out of a museum, and then see what people ask when they walk up to things.

Sibley said...

I would like to go the opposite direction as Jason. Art museums today generally have extraordinarily short labels (by my measure), and I find them easy to ignore, mostly useless if I don't.

I'd like to see a museum crawling with labels. I'd like to see every inch around the paintings covered in FAQ's answering many of the questions Nina mentions above, visitor debates, an essay by a revered art critic, something from the author.

I can't imagine how I could possibly enjoy art more than via the IKEA analogy mentioned in this post. I can always ignore the words when I want to, but I'd like them there when I want something to kick off a new paradigm in my head and before I stare at the art some more.

Someone please make an art museum for those of us who think in words!!

Anonymous said...

Labels aren't essays, books, or audio tours. Those are appropriate mediums for further explanation.

For those museum visitors who want to read more, content should be provided without compromising the experience for those who don't learn through words.

Anonymous said...

curator thoughts in a label is not at all interesting. I don't want to know what the curator thinks - that's just arrogant. I want to look at the art - perhaps get some nice historical context.

and while illustrating pointedly "how to look" or specific technical aspects of the work is certainly a very good addition, asking a curator to tell you what the artist was thinking is simply...well...incredibly stupid.

how could a curator know if why X side is up? maybe it's in some art history text but if that's the most important issue when you are looking at a work of art then no label can help you.

Anonymous said...

I just went to MONA in Hobart. They hook you up with what they call "the O."

There are no labels on the artwork at all.

You navigate the gallery using your "O" which is basically an ipod loaded with as much (or as little) info and multimedia related to the gallery. It locates works near you using wifi and you can vote to "love" or "hate" the art.

MONA rocks.

William said...

there is a museum in New England, a nice collection a must say, where the lady who collected the artwork does not believe in labels!! interesting notion .. unfortunately, i can't remember the name ..

Camilla said...

HI There! just found this post now... after years! The magic of the web! So don't know if anyone is still connected to the blog. Nina, are you still here or have you migrated to other web spaces?
My question is: any examples or expereince of lables written by visitors? Thanks. Camilla

Anonymous said...


Was it the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston? This museum is unusual because Ms. Gardner stipulated in her will that nothing could be moved. It's a huge conservation challenge but the viewer gets to see everything exactly as she conceived it and there are no labels. Personally I like it because I think the mystery and charm of the building would be compromised with them and I enjoy having a discourse with the people I attend the museum with and exchanging information with them. There are also gallery guides provided in wooden bins at the entrance of every room that visitors can pick up and use to explore.