Museum (and Gallery) wall texts

One of my most popular posts on this blog thus far (it’s only been about 6 weeks) has been one I wrote about museum wall text. These are the words that appear on the walls of a museum or a gallery that “explain” the art for the unsuspecting visitor. Clearly there is interest in this topic. I referred in that post to Tyler Green’s blog entry about the history of these texts, which I found fascinating.

This weekend I went to a friend’s gallery opening in Chicago. It was a group show and each artist (all SAIC students) wrote the label for their own work. The work was all technology based, which for me meant that it was not very accessible. A lot of the ideas behind the works were conceptual; a lot of the ‘work’ behind the work was in the computer programming code and not as ‘visible’ as it is in, say, a painting. Now this may raise some interesting questions about whether art needs to be explained. Whether it needs this or not, I have to say that this work certainly benefits from it. I read labels that tried to explain the purpose and function of the artwork, but which were written in a way that I could not penetrate the meaning. Passive voice was used. Vague language, unspecific in locating the reader in time or place, made me wonder if I was reading theories about how things should work, and made me feel technologically challenged (and I assure you that generally, I am not).

The thing is, once I talked to the artists and they told me about the operation of these technical pieces, all was clear. And very, very cool. And so I must conclude, at least in this case, that art does need to be explained. And that it should be explained well. Perhaps if the artists spent some time learning how to explain their work in words, it would go a long way. Technology is not so transparent as paint.

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4 responses to “Museum (and Gallery) wall texts

  1. Alright, I must admit to taking afront at the conclusions you’ve drawn.

    Wall text is a huge issue in museums and galleries, and it’s relationship to technology is just the tip of the iceberg. As an artist who works with technology (and participant in the show described) I’d say that many of these pieces were no less transparent than the walls of abstractions that I viewed earlier that day at a different gallery.

    I believe that text may appear useful, but often inspires laziness. Walking through museums and watching visitors walk from text to text, referring to the paintings and sculptures as an afterthought strikes fear into my heart.

    I’ll admit that some artwork needs words, but I doubt that concise & active tense wall texts could ever replace talking with an engaged creator/artist. Could the texts be hints or explanations? Technical specs or rhetorical questions?

    Finally, most of the texts in the show were badly written, and some of the work was obscure, Thank-you for sharing your attention, and engaging in our ideas.

  2. You are so right – text is a huge issue. And I was admittedly being lazy myself when I wrote my neat conclusion about the necessity of explaining more technological art.

    And I take your point about the walls of abstractions generated by non-technological art. Hmmm….so can you ever really explain art at all? I just had conversations with some museum educators at the AAM confernce in Chicago (in a session, ironically, about using technology as a tool for interpretation), and many of them argued that the goal of interpretation in the museum is to provide ‘hooks’ into the material, not to explain it.

    My co-worker wrote a great diatribe on this subject today on our internal blog: Let’s Dumb Down!

  3. I know your posts on Museum and gallery wall texts were posted some time ago, nevertheless I have found them all extremely useful for the purposes of my research. Both your own posts and informative links have been invaluable for one of my own recent posts http://fuckyouimage.wordpress.com/2010/08/11/treachery-of-images/
    My topic does deviate from your writings, but regardless allowed me to clarify some thoughts and future developments.

  4. Thanks so much justinplace! It’s so good to know that writing these things down has some use for someone at some point! I’ll take a look at your blog – am curious about your research.

    it’s funny – I haven’t thought about this topic for some time, but last night as I watched the finale of Bravo’s Work of Art TV show, I was having this conversation in my head again….does the art need to be explained? And can you ever really even experience it without some sort of explanation?

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