Tuesday, February 8, 2011

museum labels - how much is tmi?

For the past twenty years or so, museology scholars have discussed the notion of the museum as a temple or a forum, or even a hybrid of the two as, in my opinion, seems to be the case at most U.S. encyclopedic art museums one encounters in the twenty-first century.  With the increase in interactivity in the gallery space, especially with the advent of new digital technologies, what then do most people want from old-fashioned labels?

Recently, The Guardian's Charlotte Higgins had an interesting counter-commentary to a BBC Radio broadcast by Alain de Botton.  de Botton argued that while some might applaud museums that are fulfilling church-like functions in the modern world, these same institutions do not do an adequate job of directing folks to interpret uplifting spiritual messages from the art on display--they "don't speak to our souls".  Higgins, however, believes "...museums are first and foremost places of scholarship and ...learning the way the world fits together and the place of objects within the world", not sites for lessons on morality.

While Higgins agrees with de Botton that some museum labels are "bland," they typically provide the display object's provenance and purpose, while curators give contextual information through the object's placement in relation to others in the gallery.  Furthermore, this much information IS enough--no touch screens, recorded voices, or projected digital renderings necessary.  Higgins believes labels that force visitors to experience objects by "bringing on" emotional, spiritual or moral reflections are neither needed nor wanted.  I tend to agree as do many who posted comments to the article, all of which are well worth a look. 

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