Museum Wall Text

Tyler Green inspired me with his post the other day about wall texts in museums: Where wall text came from.

In my experience, this has been an unending topic in museums – we are constantly asking ourselves why we do it, and how much is enough, how much is too much? AAM conference sessions are devoted to the quest-ion. In the (2) museums I have worked in, we have asked other museums for their style guides and philosophies, and curators have experimented—usually with no text at all, or limited group labels and tombstone references for the objects. It’s a question that goes to the heart of what we do: interpreting art for our audience. I love Green’s historiography of the issue. It gives a perspective and reminds us that this is not a new issue.

At the Museums and the Web conference this past week, quite a few presenters put forth results of evaluations of various interpretive tools provided for visitors. (See Peter Samis on multiple approaches to interpreting the Matthew Barney show at SFMOMA, and Antenna Audio’s Nancy Proctor on useage of cell phone tours, among others.) While the focus of these studies was on new-fangled technological interpretive tools, they all noted that the #1 tool used by museum visitors is still the wall text. But Samis noted that the SFMOMA study clearly showed that those who used the technology tools felt overwhelmingly that they got more out of the exhibition than those who stuck to the good old-fashioned labels.

So, where are we now? Where are we as museum content-creators—and as museum visitors—putting our efforts? What motivates museum staff to produce prodigious quantities of words? (Indeed, the standard 75-word limit on labels in most museums seems to be a limit that is pushed more often than it is obeyed.) What motivates visitors to read, or to pick up an audio tour, sit at a kiosk, open a book? We’re shifting ground here….will be interesting to see where the wall text goes…


6 responses to “Museum Wall Text

  1. i remember seeing basquait with you and noting the minimal info-curating. it was bliss.

    he is an artist whose work speaks louder than any interpretation and holds his own in a big museum setting. remember how he bombarded us with his symbols and visual tropes.

    art speaks and breathes. let the art hounds drift through museums with their info loaded minds as jeanette winterson notes in ‘art objects’ and let me sit down and be with a painting my our own.

  2. Ah…I remember. I also remember saying that Basquiat’s paintings have so many words on them they are like info-labels themselves!

    I understand your need to be on your own with the art. But what about those who don’t know where to begin? Then again, am I underestimating the ability of audiences to understand on their own terms? There is a certain arrogance in believing you have ‘the’ interpretation.

  3. does the artist necessarily want to be interpreted all the time by other people?

    the text does change the visual experience – it can make for a denser and sometimes more mysterious experience i.e. museum of jurassic technology.

    i like paintings, especially big paintings, to be walls of colour/narrative and to set the atmosphere of the place on their own.

    yesterday, i crept into a room at the tate modern and it was fucking brilliant – louise bourgeois with francis bacon. it was so intense and felt so right. i said perfect aloud. i think bacon would have said ‘silly cow’ but secretly liked it.

  4. Pingback: Museums without Wall Text « All That Is Solid·

  5. Pingback: Museum (and Gallery) wall texts | The Butterfly Net·

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