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What To Put On the Wall, Along With the Art

The perennially quotidian but important issue of museum labels has cropped up into several conversations I’ve had lately. That put me, for the most part, in mind of some quotes from an artist, none other than that conceptual artist and sometime prankster John Baldessari.

John-BaldessariThere’s little questions that some museums have dumbed down their labels of late. Granted, people seem to know less and less about art, even as museum attendance seems to be growing. (That may be because there’s so much more to know and to learn about art, what with more museums showing increasingly broad and diverse offerings). For prime evidence of the dumbing down, though, look no further than the Copper Hewitt Museum in Manhattan. I was there a week ago to view Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio. Heatherwick’s work is original, innovative and fascinating. But neither the show nor the labels do him justice.

We’ll stick to the labels here, which are framed as questions. Probably meant to be engaging, to involve viewers, they instead are condescending. The museum feels like a kindergarten.

Where is the line, when does a label cross from being informative to being condescending (or even insulting)? Here’s what Baldessari said when he was in New York for his exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in 2010. As Reuters related it:

“I don’t think they (visitors) need any preshow counseling,” the 79-year-old artist, who was dressed in all-black with a scraggly white beard, told reporters at a preview of the show.

Baldessari is often described as a conceptual artist. Critics regularly refer to Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp when describing his humorous, usually colorful creations packed with pop culture references.

But Baldessari said his art is accessible to anyone who visits the museum.

“I don’t think you really have to spoon feed the viewer,” he explained. “You just have to give them something to hang on to and they can begin to unravel it themselves. It’s kind of like reading a detective story, you get a clue, you follow that.”

He’s right, I think.

Now, on a related issue, brought to my attention by an RCA reader, I ask your help: Have you been in museums recently that have removed labels altogether? I’ve written in The Wall Street Journal and here about the Worcester Museum of Art, which removed the labels in its Old Master galleries. The public didn’t like it. But theory is that this forces the visitor to look at the art, rather than the label.

I’d love to know of additional examples. Please leave a comment or send a message to me via the “Contact” link at the top of this website.



  1. Always interesting how people like the writer or Baldessari, who spend their lives and make their living deep inside the art world, and in the writer’s case, making a living writing much longer articles about art and arts institutions, still bristle at 100 word labels. I wonder if the people who came to the museum and didn’t know anything about the work found it condescending…

    • Thanks for your comment, but I don’t bristle at 100-word labels and I’m not sure how you got that impression. What was condescending at the Cooper-Hewitt was the tone, the Q&A format and the choice of language to answer the Q.

  2. Christopher Crosman says

    Many museums provide extended (i.e. 50 to 150 words) labels for some but not all works of art. Here the question is how does the staff determine which receive labels and which do not. Label writing is an incredibly tough assignment and requires intense study of the object at hand. Most museums vet label copy rigorously and the best labels evoke something about what makes the object “museum-worthy” as well as a bit of context– historical, social and cultural. That’s not easy to do in 50 or even 150 words. I haven’t seen the Cooper-Hewitt’s labels but agree that if you are addressing work by a living artist, a few quotes might be preferable to speculative and conceivably “dumbed-down” labels. I do question Worcester’s decision to remove labels from their old master galleries. Historical work needs historical background, especially in this age of historical amnesia and constant attention to “now.”

  3. Stew Mosberg says

    Perhaps the Worcester is the extreme, but it does seem like an exercise in futility. Art, particularly in museum and gallery presentations are often shunned by the general public because they are made to feel inferior. The snooty, pretentious attitudes and arcane, often buzz word- laden, commentaries and descriptions befuddle and condescend, rather than simplify or allow interpretation (like this sentence, for instance). Watch visitors at exhibitions and you will see them read the “captions” first and then step back to see if they “get it.” For me, the proper appraoch when looking at or “experiencing” art is to just see it. You like it or don’t. Your interpretation is your own, i.e. all art is subjective-period! Instead of trying to figure out what the artist intended, why not just accept it for what it does for you or to you. The truly curious can explore it further, if desired.

  4. Barbara Chalsma says

    I do not go to a museum to be “forced” to do anything. I go to enjoy and to learn from experts who have studied art and artists for lifetimes. Museum personnel, give freely and generously of your knowledge. Worcester, please correct the error of your ways!

  5. I like a label with complete attribution info close to the work in question. I’ve noticed a trend lately where, in order not to disturb the “design” of the installation, (often an empty wall), the label is off somewhere else and you have to search for it and figure out which label belongs to which work! Why can’t the whole thing just be transparent and easy to access?

    Carole Stodder

  6. Removing labels, erasing the history of an object, is a horrifying practice. When you say that the labels are removed, are you also saying there’s no information about the artist, the title, the material, and the date of creation? Or is it the additional explanatory information that has vanished?

    I know that there’s a general distaste for history nowadays; there’s a sense that if things are not new, they are of no interest. But that is fundamentally untrue. We need the past to understand the present. An Italian Annunciation and a German Annunciation tell the viewer different things. A landscape painted by Gainsborough tells the view something different from a landscape painted by Rockwell Kent. To remove labels and explanatory text reduces everything to anonymous decoration. I cannot comprehend this fear of knowledge.

  7. The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia has no labels. Each gallery room has a laminated description of the artworks in that room. It is located on a table or somewhere else in the gallery. So visitors are encouraged to look at the art first. (It doesn’t always happen, but for many, the art becomes the focus, rather than the labels.)

  8. Doralynn Pines says

    The Picasso Sculpture exhibition at MoMA is an example of good labels. There is a brochure that gives the visitor tombstone information, and excellent wall chats that orient you to the room.

  9. I think it’s hilarious that you didn’t even provide any examples of the labels that “are condescending” and make the museum feel “like a kindergarten”. Here’s a blog post where someone took the time to respond to your inane post and provide examples of the labels. After looking at them I’d say they’re actually very informative and provide useful context. You could take a lesson from her and try showing your work.

    • You laugh easily–that’s good to know. I didn’t provide examples of the labels because when I went to the exhibition I had no intention of blogging about it. I went to learn about Heatherwick’s work. It was only afterward, when I was speaking with people about museum labels, that I decided to blog: I discovered in that conversation, that other people read the labels the same way I had.

  10. Ashley Kistler says

    The labels and text panels in the “Wonder” exhibition at the newly reopened Renwick in DC are among the most inane I have ever encountered. Unfortunately, a great example of dumbing down.

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