Friday, April 20, 2012

Labels or no labels

Should galleries allow the art to speak for itself or should they provide information and interpretation for visitors? asks an article in the December 2011 UK Museums Journal.  It’s a question that is as old as art itself, with two components.The first is how much interpretive material should be provided, the dilemma described by Nicholas Serota of the Tate as that of ‘experience or interpretation’ i.e. either helping visitors experience a sense of discovery in looking at artworks or leaving them to find themselves ’standing on the conveyor belt of history ‘ (great quote!). 

The second component is how that interpretation is physically imparted. The common label is under some threat at present, witness the label-less MONA (see blog) and experiments that National Gallery in London has been trialing (having no labels but a pocket size guide book for visitors), and the Getty in LA (exhibiting a room full of Rembrandts with no labels for 4 weeks before they put the labels up). Whilst the National Gallery speaks favourably of visitor reaction to their trial, the Royal Academy note that  visitors struggle without them. Kathleen Soriano of the RA noticed that ‘ the absence of labels can make audiences quite nervous. They tend to walk past more quickly’. 

And of course this is also where technology is making serious inroads in offering new ways of ‘seeing ‘ art.  Whilst the Getty substituted no other form of interpretive material for their label-less Rembrandts, MONA provides a highly sophisticated iPod touch info package. 

In between there are lots of new techniques that can be tried. I visited the National Gallery of Denmark over Christmas where in their splendid newly refurbished European galleries, they have included as well as labels;
a)         a large touch table in the first gallery where the highlights of each successive gallery are able to examined in  detail as a taste of what is to come
b)         each gallery has  a small ‘break out’ area, literally an open topped cubicle, where one painting only is hung with a seat to contemplate and earphones for audio information
c)         a series of desks with board games for kids down the middle of one of their major galleries, with the games answers derived from the surrounding paintings.

Museums and the Web last year concentrated on the critical role the mobile was beginning to play in museums .  Much of course has happened since, and it seems amazing that we were discussing then how some art museums still did not permit mobiles. Smartphone use has now passed 50% of all mobile use and web access via mobile overtaken desktop access.
So a number of papers at Museums and the Web 2012 last week looked at strategies to deal with this fast changing world.  Messages I picked up from them included:

  • Know your audience and environment – mobile delivery of content via smartphones or multi media devices is not always applicable. Some visitors choose to come as a fun family outing, and accessing content whetrhe visual or audio through mobiles  can provide solitary experiences that do not enhance this.
  • Awareness of apps that can be downloaded onto your own smartphone is still low (people imagine that the museum’s equipment has to be used as at MONA) or visitors can be wary of app use (they presume it will cost them as part of their plan or can expose them to viruses).
  • Be aware that no one has quite sorted out the business model, i.e. whether apps or providing iPod touchs should be free
Check out particularly relevant papers at:
But returning to the label debate, we will never completely ditch them, but I continue to believe that hand held devices as the principal interpretive tool are going to be the way of the immediate future.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

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