The Exhibit Label: A Story of Text Through Time

by Tascha von Uexkull


Text features as a vital but often elusive presence within museums. Most viewers hardly register its presence, blindly following its intellectual pathway. Did we like the art and the way it was presented, we often question, after viewing an exhibition, but rarely; did we appreciate the textual content? In this sense, exhibit labels come to occupy a supertemporal space beyond the judgment we impose onto other elements of museum display. This is perhaps a little ironic in light of the modern development of exhibit labels and the fact that their current content lies within a strictly defined temporal space, informed by modern conceptions of the role of the museum as a social institution. The latter considerations have given rise to a new appreciation of museum audiences, exploring how text might enable a more inclusive, accessible journey for the viewer, through the adaptation of the exhibition label’s form, content and style.

With the rise of New Museology and the democratisation of the modern museum setting in the late 70s and 80s, exhibit labels have acquired an increasingly important status, functioning as the museum’s primary mode of communication. During this period, museums came under scrutiny, assessed in relation to their socio-political motivations, in opposition to their former status as passive, objective purveyors of higher truths for the consumption of an educated middle-class. With the increase in accessibility, it became necessary for museums to cater for new audiences, which included ethnic and social minorities.

In her article The Evolution of Exhibit Labels, Dana Fragomeni discusses how, prior to the 1970s, exhibit labels were written by curators, often with limited experience in writing, in ‘specialized, technical jargon’, and were largely ignored by visitors, considered secondary to the art itself. Indeed, in the nineteenth-century, many critics suggested text might be an unnecessary distraction to the artwork on display. Interestingly, Fragomeni argues on this basis that without the modern honing of exhibit text, which has rendered it a vital if relatively unrecognised aspect of our exhibition experience, museums would have become ‘mere warehouses for beautiful objects’. This bold statement apparently prioritises text over image, suggesting that it might be the textual content within the museum that elevates its status to one of a cultural institution instead of merely a commercial storage space. Is this true, and if so, what are the implications of museums becoming more about interpretive text than the art they are intended to house? Certainly, Fragomeni suggests, the evolution of the exhibit label has allowed art to reach a far wider audience.

According to the modern view of the function of the museum, text must provide a close encounter with the spectator. The recent introduction of audience evaluation into the museum setting has encouraged dialogue between the two, and this has produced drastic changes in terms of the style, form and content of exhibit labels. The once technical, scientific tone has given way to a conversational style, which encourages further interpretation and dialogue. The museum becomes an institution not of objective, authorial control over objects, but one of expansive conversations, in which viewers can impose their own values, beliefs and knowledge onto the institution’s content. This linguistic shift has also been echoed in formalistic alterations, with the introduction of ‘bold fonts, colour photography and illustrations’ (Fragomeni), overtaking the formerly small, uniform font prior to the 1970s. In this sense, we might suggest that the text itself has taken on an aesthetic value.

In light of the difficulties one might encounter in providing a textual experience suitable for a wider but not entirely defined audience, the Victoria and Albert Museum have set out some guidelines for writing text labels, working from audience statistics. The first argument presented surrounds the importance of addressing an audience who spends, on average, 30 seconds with an object. Taking inspiration from journalistic technique, the ‘hook’ (or point of interest) must form the beginning rather than the end of the label. This in itself presents issues. In defining its audience based on an average viewing time, we could argue the museum already excludes a portion of its audience who might spend considerably longer with an object. In working from generalisations, there is of course the persistent danger that one will exclude minorities, which is ironically what New Museology attempts to avoid.

Importantly, however, the V&A also acknowledges the importance of not patronising their audience, encouraging the viewer to make his/her own observations on the work rather than imposing viewpoints or beliefs. Rather than the daunting or perhaps patronising imposition of specialist factual information, the V&A advocates the creation of a human narrative with which the viewer can engage and relate to their own experiences. Far from being a distinct, perhaps unnecessary addition to visual content, the text becomes a vital means of forming the character of our visual experience. In this quest, one might use contemporary quotations that transport the viewer back in time (e.g. V&A text panel on Machiavelli’s letter in the image below), contextualise objects by relating them to modern concerns (e.g. V&A text panel on John Henry Foley’s ‘Portrait Bust of John Sheepshanks’ in the image below), or utilise literary techniques that evoke or capture sensory experience in order to vivify the viewer’s encounter with the object (e.g. V&A text panel on ‘Incense Boat and Spoon’ in the image below). It may be interesting at this point to acknowledge the increasingly literary function of the label, as fiction elides with fact, and exhibit labels become a form of ekphrasis.



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It seems this pursuit of accessibility is undoubtedly a worthy and necessary one, but might we express concern at the seemingly increasing subjectivity present within these labels associated with fact? Or should we simply rejoice at the lack of pretension and alienating vocabulary? Certainly, we must not take exhibit labels at face value, but acknowledge both their history within the context of the modern museum and their inevitable constructedness. In the museum’s apparent desire to construct human narratives and create accessible content, after all, we must be aware of the content that may have been sacrificed in this endeavour.

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