I can’t stand art exhibitions that do not use explanatory wall labels.
There’s no point in mincing my words on this topic. I spend most of my time these days at a history museum that does not have label texts because they have guided tours, but for the most part, there is little in the rooms of a historic house museum that would seem inscrutable to the average visitor. The guide of that tour, then, embroiders stories over what the visitors see, adding color and making connections that can shape a museum experience into something memorable. In this case, labels are not really necessary because the experience aims throughout to be immersive and participatory.
And yet, for all the talk in professional communities about museums needing to focus on providing participatory experiences, art museums still frequently put up exhibitions without label texts that include no more than the identifying information for the work. For contemporary art, where the works are often, officially, “Untitled,” this identifying information alone can be next to meaningless. Without available programming that engages the themes of the exhibition, there is little to provide explanation of the messages of the works on display. When the works being exhibited draw on complex social histories, theories, and politics, which the viewer may or may not be familiar with prior to their visit, how can a person participate in the dialogues the works are meant to invoke?
If there is no audio tour, handout, or extra program, an art exhibition without explanatory labels asks for viewers to be already “in the know” about the issues the works address, like walking through the door of an art museum certifies entry into a privileged community. This is the very opposite of a participatory museum experience, and it undermines the role that art museums should play in our society. This oversight is the kind of thing that enables the belief that Art History, as a discipline, is the province of the rich and entitled, a discipline superfluous to regular life.
I have been guilty myself of thinking that providing further explanation of Art History and also specific artworks seemed like an unnecessary concession—that people should understand the necessity of studying Art History without me explaining to them why I believe in its importance. I realize now that this reflexive reaction of mine functioned more like a defense mechanism against forcing myself to confront the question. Why do I believe in the importance of studying Art History?
Good artists do more than make pictures. They take entire worldviews and funnel them into visual work that tells a story, makes a protest, experiments with media, or takes any one of many, many other actions. Their work is often complicated, whether or not the assemblage of paint and materials in the museum seems complicated. And sometimes, a viewer needs a few clues to guess what message the artist was trying to send. When work concerns issues of race, class, or gender, a viewer may need much more than a few clues to avoid relying on stereotypes for understanding and growth.
I’m lucky to live somewhere where the art museum has immense community support and colossal amounts of funding to put behind its outreach programs. Maybe my art museum can get away with not using explanatory labels in special exhibitions, but it still shouldn’t. Getting people through the door can’t be enough when art museums and, yes, Art History are two of the greatest tools we have to convince people why they should trust in empathy, creativity, and education.