At Frieze, Hayward Gallery curator Tom Morton considers museum wall text. “Major museums and galleries provide wall texts because of three problems – or, at least, what are perceived to be problems. The first of these is simply identification, which is solved by the classic ‘tombstone’ label, detailing a work’s author, title, date, dimensions (surely unnecessary in the exhibition space itself? Has anyone ever exclaimed ‘2440 x 1830mm, whouda thunk it?’) and provenance. The second and third are a little more complex, and might be characterized as the perceived absence, among a broad audience, of the art historical knowledge to put a work into context, and the assumed inability of the work to communicate to that audience on the work’s own terms. If these problems actually are problems – and most large institutions seem to think they are – then it follows that the devices with which they address them are absolutely vital to the enterprise of exhibition-making, and should be of a corresponding quality. Why is it, then, that so many museum and gallery wall texts are so reductive, so intellectually unambitious, so badly written, and so physically intrusive that they feel less like the handiwork of Jeeves than of some shambling Igor?
“One response to this might be that these texts are not written for a specialist audience, but I’m left wondering exactly what assumptions are being made about a non-specialist audience, and why their authors think that the best way to reach them is through leaden analysis, delivered in the most leaden of language. A typical example I recently chanced upon described an artist’s work as ‘investigating issues surrounding gender, power, community, and one’s place in our mass-mediated society’, a construction that serves next to no elucidatory purpose (if the artist was indeed concerned with this check-list of big, bold abstractions, surely it would be obvious from their work?) and fails to communicate anything in the way of excitement about looking and thinking. A wall text should make the viewer – any viewer – want to look at the work again. If it leaves us feeling neither more informed nor more enthused, it’s just visual junk, pointing at something that, if the artist who made it is any kind of artist at all, is already doing a pretty good job of pointing to itself.” Read more.
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