My favorite museum label of all is at the start of the historical text at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York:
“In the beginning, shortly after God created heaven and earth, man and woman, there were stones to throw and sticks to swing.”
A second favorite was at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in the 1990s, in the Department of Classical Art, but long since taken down: it accompanied a 5th Century BCE Greek kylix krater, depicting two ithyphallic satyrs greeting a voluptuous maenad:
“A maenad is greeted by two satyrs, who are obviously excited to see her.”
What a pity that there is not more often humor in museum labels! The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles is an outlier in doing a good job in this regard. Some contemporary artists, like Josiah Mcelheny, have effectively borrowed the authority of museum labels to tease out profound issues of the interaction of modernist templates and their presumed dependence on platonic ideals.
My first art museum mentor, Agnes Mongan, disliked all explanatory labels because she believed that they distracted from a deeper contemplation of the work of art, and viewers’ openness to their own discoveries and personal associations. But current museum opinion is strongly in favor of labels, especially labels that contextualize a work of art and engage the viewer, often with questions that serve as pathways into a work. The core text on the subject is by Beverly Serrell, Museum Labels, An Interpretive Approach (Second Edition, 2015). Serrell covers everything from “making words and images work together” to “production and fabrication.” Serrell’s Ten Commandments” of labels are common sense guidelines that are very frequently ignored:
Labels should begin with concrete, visual references to the objects they interpret to bring them to life.
Labels should relate to the big idea of the exhibit, not ramble without focus or objectives, or contain sub-sub-subtopics.
Labels should emphasize interpretation (offering provocation) over instruction (presenting information).
Labels should know their audience and address visitors’ prior knowledge, interests and/or misconceptions.
Labels that ask questions should be visitors’ questions.
Label design should reflect the label’s content or context and be part of a recognizable system of label types.
Labels should be written with a vocabulary that is within reach of the majority of visitors.
Labels should be short and concise, more like a tweet than a tome.
I like very much Angie Reed Garner’s labels for her exhibition, “Shantyboating,” at the garnernarrative contemporary fine art, until March 29th. Garner states that her work is “inspired by Harlan Hubbard’s insistence on a life of dignity and self-determination” and that her work “reflects on forces in opposition thereto.” The forcible destruction of homeless camps in the Butchertown neighborhood in the fall of 2018 profoundly affected Garner. She devised a set of symbols – shantyboats, imported but now invasive species of fish, plants, and mules – to represent the negotiation of forces, good and evil, as seen in the historic setting of the Ohio River, on the riverbank, “a liminal site of liberation, revelation, pollution, and opposition.” It is germane that “The Point,” the nearest shoreline to Butchertown, was the traditional site of the shantyboats and their dwellers, often living a marginal existence, unable to afford more traditional housing or surviving on fishing, basket making, and harvesting mussel shells for pearls or button manufacture.
“Shantyboat #7” depicts a giant carp leaping over a shantyboat, as it dives into a swirling cosmic whirlpool, socks drying on one end of the shantyboat juxtaposed with a luminous cosmic background of a ringed sun and white letters afloat above the misted green waters. The text that accompanies the oil painting states:
“We live out consequences intended or not. I think about Asian carp, brought here for reasons in the 70s and thriving but now mostly hated. Then I think, we should support every possible effort to control and abate Ohio River pollution. We might need that water clean and those fish healthy, someday.”
By bringing us into her own ruminations, Garner in effect prompts the viewer to think about a host of issues: the regional history of environmental missteps, the value of all forms of life, the distortions caused by a good-and-evil approach to the natural world, what the artist believes the painting is about, and how it pertains to a universalist perspective on how our fate and the carp’s fate are united:
“We might need that water clean and those fish healthy, someday.”