Wall Text, 2003/6
Ink on paper
Courtesy the author


The Omnibus

David Hickey’s great omnibus of an exhibition “Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism” was a beautiful argument for banishing wall texts from the exhibition of contemporary art. Held in 2001, Hickey’s version of SITE Santa Fe’s International Biennial presented the work of twenty-nine artists in a super-customized installation that was created by Graft Design working in close rapport with the curator and a number of the artists. White walls molded and curved around individual works—works as disparate as Ellsworth Kelly’s classic abstractions, Kenneth Anger’s controversial films, Darryl (Mutt Mutt) Montana’s Mardi Gras costumes, and Takashi Murakami’s anime-inspired sculpture—so that the entire museum was transformed into one great architectural frame. Appropriately, the label for this picture hung outside the frame, in the form of a boisterous graffiti drawing by Gajin Fujita painted on the exterior of the building. Inside, works were identified by a free catalog brochure with short, informative entries on each of the artists, a map insert, and a curator’s statement on the premise of the show. All of the usual didactic material—from the introductory wall panel to the explanatory labels—was rolled into one hand-carried item that afforded viewers a chance to look at art, undistracted by text and labels.

To imagine visitors at Hickey’s show is to travel back in time to Edgar Degas’s print of Mary Cassatt in the Paintings Gallery at the Louvre, 1879-80. She leans into a contrapposto pose, supported by her umbrella, while her semi-invalid sister Lydia sits in study with a gallery guide, both taking in the pictures and modeling for one. This late-nineteenth-century picture evokes the art world of Charles Baudelaire. The poet, art critic, and flaneur may be the ideal visitor to Hickey’s “cosmopolitan salon.” Profoundly aesthetic and deeply informed, Baudelaire may well have deduced avant la letter Hickey’s desire to make a show that would “very closely resemble my idea of a ‘beautiful world.’” He certainly would have had little use for a curator’s wall text.

But let’s say that Baudelaire, who was as particular as Hickey himself, isn’t your anticipated audience. A critic and writer, Hickey is well acclaimed for his populist and philosophical writings on the value of beauty and visual pleasure––influential writings that cohere like a super-text to the entire SITE Santa Fe exhibition. One might see the exhibition as a culmination of these texts, which, even if you hadn’t read them, were elaborated by the installation’s shapely architecture and sheer gorgeousness (Hickey described his selection as “art on the verge of design”). Indeed, this show made spectacularly obvious something that is true of all exhibitions: they are constructions dependent on conventions––assemblages of objects composed in space for the purpose of display. And in eschewing wall text, Hickey chose not to deploy one of those conventions.

It was a rare experience to encounter this choice, compared to the more typical scenario in today’s museums. According to critic Peter Schjeldahl, exhibitions are now a-jumble with “patronizing curatorial wall texts, the babble of Acoustiguides, and other evidence of marketing and education.”1 However unkind, Schjeldahl’s remark points to a real problem. There is a lack of both rigor and regard paid exhibition wall text, which has become, like wallpaper, something of a dreary necessity, taken for granted even by the curators that write them. Or worse: writing for the New York Times, critic Roberta Smith chided curators for producing shows that “between the art, the labels, and the catalogs, are largely talk.”2  However, to therefore deduce that, when it comes to showing contemporary art, all wall text is bad, or superfluous, is to deny the complexity and creativity of a curatorial practice. Hence these remarks. Wall text is a curator’s responsibility. It includes the large didactic panel introducing the exhibition, as well as all the various-sized smaller panels and labels, marking specific works or moments throughout the installation.3 It is an opportunity to transmit insights, inspire interest, and to point to the fact that choices have been made. When there is no wall text, other assumptions are being made, which also need to be read critically. Whether present or absent, wall text is an ephemeral literature. It colors our experience, but it is eminently forgettable. And just as the curator chooses to insert or not to insert it, so the viewer too has a choice: to read or not to read. Thus, paradoxically, wall texts can in effect appear or disappear on command. As a consequence, they can, and should be approached strategically and creatively––or should not be used at all. Bad wall text is, like bad writing, simply bad.


The Omnium Gatherum

Why are we stuck with labels in the first place? Embedded in the history of museums, labels also originated with private collecting. As recounted in Museum Labels, a l957 publication of the Museums Association, London, the first collections ranged from “the ominum gatherum of the individual for whom every ‘oddity’ and ‘rarity’…had a peculiar fascination” to the “Cabinet of the more discerning collector, who was usually a student of some branch…natural history or archaeology” to the “acquisitions of wealthy patrons of art.”4  In every case, it was the collectors themselves, who––prideful of their possessions and the status they conferred-––provided all the explanation on offer to those fortunate enough to be invited in for a private view. A label identifying a group of objects might appear attached to a case; there is a 1719 print of Pope Clement’s botanical collection showing a box labeled “rocks and minerals.” To keep track of their possessions, collectors kept inventories, and sometimes produced excellent catalogs to document and disseminate information about their holdings to like-minded individuals. As collections evolved a more public purpose, curators assumed the job of on-site explanation. The first keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, for example, did not receive a salary but was paid per tour. This system gave rise to some amusing eighteenth-century complaints. Recipients of a British private collector’s tour complained of their guide’s “requiring everyone to listen to him as to an oracle.”5 A visitor left to his own devices in an Italian cabinet remarked, “it is to be wondered at that those who have had the Curiosity, and means to amass so many fine Things together should not have had the care…to add explanatory Remarks on such as are most considerable.”6

The invention of the modern museum brought with it a mandate to educate the masses. Whereas visitors to early collections would have been on social par with their hosts, the Grand Tourist was increasingly finding him- or her-self sharing the museum with the unleisured classes. Entrance fees to the Mechanics Institute, in London, were staggered: ladies and gentlemen paid higher admission than tradesmen, who paid more than the working classes.7 (Dress and speech declared your ticket price.) Inventory-like tags that had once sufficed for members of those elite groups, whose expeditions and sprees may have given provenance to the objects on view in the first place, raised more questions than they answered. In 1857, the British House of Commons passed a rule that, in national museums, objects of art, science, and historical interest would thenceforth be accompanied by “a brief Description there-of, with the view of conveying useful Information to the Public, and of sparing them the expense of a Catalogue.”8 Attempts to standardize labels throughout the British museum system led, during the 1890s, to a series of reports by the Museums Association. One popular idea was to print labels on basic topics or types of objects for general distribution. Typically over three hundred words in length, these “specimen labels” threatened to turn exhibition displays into textbooks. The uniformity they sought to impose met with lively resistance and debate, as evinced by a swell in literature on wall labels around the turn of the century.9


The So-Called Gallery Leaflet

The author of the invaluable publication from which I have just extracted this history was  F.J. North. North was not a curator of art, but a keeper of geology at the National Museum of Wales. And while he confidently dispenses advice on how to label winkles and lions, he counsels that art is a different matter altogether. “There are, indeed, differences of opinion as to whether the things displayed in art galleries should have labels at all.”10 This question was taken up by Laurence Vail Coleman, whose 1927 American manual for small museums was as serviceable to North in 1957 as it seems today.11 Coleman parses the problem three ways. Viewers who take only an intellectual interest in what they see are apt to be frustrated by installations that don’t provide didactic labels. Art is, by contrast, a sensory experience and labels, however informative, cannot help viewers in their appreciation of art. They can actually hinder its experience. Basically, it comes down to aesthetics versus information, weighted on the side favoring aesthetics. The best solution, Coleman concludes, is to produce short inconspicuous labels and gather “together the real label texts into a so-called gallery leaflet.”12 Solid advice that harks back to the nineteenth-century Salon and pitches forward to “Beau Monde.” But take a moment to consider the context in which Coleman would have been doing this leafleting.

The small museum of the 1920s was a temple for art––modern buildings based on classical architecture are illustrated throughout Coleman’s manual. It was a place to see treasures of Western culture, including exotic trophies of colonialism, and, perhaps, some useful decorative arts. All of these could be read comfortably within the conventions of display. But what if your model isn’t a shrine, but a laboratory, a lounge, a forum, a Wunderkammer, a cabaret? Don’t imagine that the maverick director of the Wadsworth Atheneum, A. Everett, “Chick,” Austin Jr., kept a copy of the small museum manual at his bedside, while he was fixing to present the avant-garde opera Four Saints in Three Acts as part of the museum’s program for the Friends and Enemies of Modern Music in 1934. Perhaps your model is not a museum at all: it’s a site, a visual context, an intervention. How to label, for example, an earthwork? A colleague says he did not know he was experiencing Michael Heizer’s Double Negative until he was halfway across the mesa it was cutting through. What if the art on view was created specifically to defy the conventions of the small museum? It should not be assumed that the bottlerack, a task, or a room full of mortuary mist, will hold, or seeks to command, the same complacent authority as a nineteenth-century painting.

On display in a small museum, Joseph Beuys’s Fingernail Impression in Hardened Butter, 1971, would appear to have more in common with the Ashmolean’s “a legge and claw of the Cassowary, or Emu, that dyed at St. James’, Westminster,” than, say, any one of Alexander Calder’s modernist mobiles. Indeed, a lot of contemporary art makes its initial appearance on the level of curiosity––by naturally raising questions. For viewers in pursuit of pure aesthetic experience, who may want to dismiss an object because it does not look like art, wall labels can say what the small museum won’t tell: “It’s okay that you don’t find this pleasing, it wasn’t made to be.” This is not to say that conceptual art, for example, can never be exhibited without didactics to support it. Certainly a general knowledge of the practices (and myths) that make relics into sculpture, will allow the mesh bag that Lygia Clark made for viewers to wear over their heads, her Máscara abismo (Abyss Mask) of 1968, to be seen as a compelling enough artwork. But to know that she intended the interaction as “an experimental exercise in liberty,” along with something of contemporaneous Brazilian politics and culture, is to experience the object more fully charged. Particularly in an art world that seeks to be global, this information need not be discretely tucked away in a genteel brochure or distant panel. It can be a straightforward presence, so that without breaking eye contact, one reads both the panel and the object. To wander around organizers Luis Camnitzer’s, Jane Farver’s, and Rachel Weiss’s 1999 “Global Conceptualism” exhibition at the Queens Museum, a gallery leaflet in hand, would have been incongruous with the immediacy of the objects themselves. One wonders, in fact, if without abundant, conspicuous wall texts, how much of the art on view in that groundbreaking show would have been reduced to mere curiosities.


Believe It Or Not

Artists have a lot to teach curators about the rhetorical power of text. Turning art into artifacts, and artifacts into displays of institutional racism, all with the switch of a label, has been a major motif in Fred Wilson’s art. Since the early 1990s, Wilson’s institutional interventions and mock museum installations have shown labels to be less than benign. For his 1992 commission Mining the Museum, he juxtaposed objects from the Maryland Historical Society’s permanent collection with objects and labels of his own fabrication. A cigar store Indian was declared a piece of racist folk art when Wilson named the anonymous Native American A Portrait of John Klein. Elsewhere in the installation, Wilson used spotlighting on an eighteenth-century white family portrait to pick out the black slave child. Originally included as one of the many signs of the family’s wealth and status, she became the dignified subject of Wilson’s display. Out of this collapse between fact and fiction emerge pictures (and people) that had been typically excised from the official account of Baltimore society. A pair of slave’s shackles was inserted in a case of silverware collectively labeled “Metalwork 1830-1880.” There was also comment on the peculiar habits of curators: a case full of arrowheads, their accession numbers showing, was called “Collection of Numbers.” Wilson’s practice stems from his experience inside the museum: he has worked as a museum guard, educator, and director. Indeed, he started his artistic practice in 1987 while he was the director of the Longwood Arts Project in the South Bronx. He used the space to create three different settings––an ethnographic museum, a Victorian room, and a contemporary white cube––in which he showed the work of three emerging artists. Wilson’s “Rooms with a View” raised interesting possibilities. The primitivism of Picasso would take on a whole different character when explicated through maps, short films, and other information about the Spanish artist’s bohemian tribe. Just as the Mbuya mask appears validated with a new form of significance when it is shown without any of those museum modifiers.

Another example that comes to mind is The Play of the Unmentionable, 1992, Joseph Kosuth’s monumental installation for the Brooklyn Museum, organized by curator Charlotta Kotik. Staged at the height of the culture wars, Kosuth’s installation filled the museum’s lobby with “offensive” art culled from virtually every department of the museum and accompanied by didactics galore. There were quotes from sources throughout history silkscreened, like super-texts directly on to the walls; these were painted a museological mausoleum gray. The effect was arresting enough to transform the museum’s transitional lobby space into a vault of cascading words and pictures that streamed like water over the installation’s walls. There were also curatorial wall labels of every shape and size. And there were crowds of visitors, quietly absorbed in reading the interplay between words and objects. These included “pornographic” Japanese prints, with an encyclopedia definition of shunga or “spring pictures” from a tradition where sex was neither romantic nor phallic, but joyful. There were photographs of male nudes and flowers by Robert Mapplethorpe, whose work was demonized at the center of the then-current debates about inappropriate allocation of state funding for the arts. This quote floated overhead: “The artist does not create for the artist: he creates for the people and we will see to it that henceforth the people will be called in to judge its art. ––Adolf Hitler”

There was a classical sculpture of a young male nude with a cape that, the didactics informed us, was draped expressly for the purpose of exposing his godlike physique to an approving Apollo. There were images of iconoclasm. What appeared to be fragments of Egyptian sculpture, ruined by the passage of time, were in fact imputable evidence of an ancient conservative lash-back. Following the fall of Akhenaten, during whose progressive reign art radically evolved, his name and imagery were mutilated and destroyed in order to excise his power.

And yet, given the amount of information Kosuth’s installation imparted, its message was far from rhetorical. It showed how the meaning of objects changes not only over time, and from place to place, but also that these meanings are neither inherent, nor immediately apparent. They take time to both learn and construct, as well as to impart and challenge. In making our way through centuries of the “unmentionable,” we as viewers were impelled by our own relative sense of curiosity to spend time creating a bigger picture of censorship––and its interminable threat to creative freedom and expression––than we arrived at the museum with. By giving expression to (and facilitating) a flow of ideas, labels were essential to this process––an interpretive process not unlike the construction of a work of art, an exhibition, a story, history, knowledge.

Interpretation is everything at the Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT), an exhibition construct that hovers between the factual and the fantastic, just by the thread of its didactics. The creation of its founding director David Wilson in 1989, this Los Angeles institution presents mundane artifacts––teacups, pincushions, a tatty taxidermied coyote head, a picture of a waterfall, a small bed––in elaborately mounted displays. Wall cases with wooden moldings, text panels, maps, technical diagrams and terms, dimly lit galleries punctuated by dramatic spotlighting, scholarly-looking handouts and small catalogs, the banner and signage outside the facade, all combine to confer a sense of meaning upon objects that are impervious to such authority. As viewers, we are caught between sensible disbelief and a desire to see the Flemish landscape with animals in the distance––a monkey on elephant back, a bear, a lynx, a camel, stag, etc.––not to the mention the “bearded man wearing a biretta (a long tunic of classical character)” and the “unusually grim Crucifixion” all allegedly carved onto that tiny fruit pit standing before us in that case, which is itself partially obscured by the fronds of a potted plant, placed in front of it.13 Indeed, the label reads almost exactly like one describing a similar treasure in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But without an exhibit about “The Stink Ant” in proximity, the Met’s pit strains neither our eyes, nor our faith in knowledge. We see as we are told, unlike at the MJT, where the identity of the entire institution is a question mark. Part conceptual artwork, part dime museum, one thing is certain: this ersatz institution full of elliptical objects is nothing without its wall labels.14


Tags and Tombstones

In whatever direction there may be differences of opinion, it will be agreed that the label must look good.

––F.J. North15

Richard Tuttle is known for making works based on slight, self-effacing gestures. He is just about the last artist one would expect to express interest in wall labels, except to ensure that they are out of view of his art. And yet, for his 2001 installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, he specifically requested that the labels hang large. He reasoned that, if this is going to be a museum show, by all means, let’s make it so: let the labels signify. And so they did, by being both there (some were almost as big as some of the works) and not there (as much as you were aware of them, they were totally eclipsed by Tuttle’s art). The labels themselves were of the variety known as “tombstones”: museum jargon for those labels bearing a work of art’s vital statistics––artist, title, date, medium, collection. It’s a fitting image, this tombstone. It recalls Baron Utz’s decree in Bruce Chatwin’s novel: “In any museum the object dies––of suffocation and the public gaze.”16 In taking up its resting place on the wall, the label exists as a physical thing, a stone, that some artists choose to see as part of their work. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, for example, specified that the labels for his stacked paper works be printed as offset, in order to create an overall coherence between the production of the label and the work of art. Similarly, Louise Lawler and Hiroshi Sugimoto have both been known to label their framed photographs right on the mat. The titles of Richard Misrach’s photographs are etched, by him, on the frames. For artists for whom titles matter, this measure ensures that curators won’t bury your work under the wrong tombstone. It also allows artists to take back the tradition of attaching a gold label right onto a gilded frame, something curators and collectors once did with pride, and which now constitutes a form of museum critique.

For curators of contemporary art, the thingness of labels is more circumscribed. Depending on the nature of the exhibition, labels may work better when blended with the wall as much as possible. Silkscreening is ideal, but expensive; however computers make it possible for virtually anyone to produce a clean label, which, if time and money allow, appears more elegant (less distracting) mounted on a bevel-cut piece of mat board. Typically, they should neither appear too big nor too small when seen in relation to things they are labeling. It’s also a matter of taste whether to select a number of uniform sizes or cut each label individually. Independent curator Catherine Morris recalls the ludicrous spectacle of a scholarly exhibition of Whistler’s print-marks, in which the tiny stamps were overwhelmed by voluminous wall labels. As tombstones went, it was dead butterflies commemorated by war monuments.

Having coolly dispensed with today’s institutional wisdom, it’s interesting to know that labels were once much more idiosyncratic objects. Writing in 1957, North notes that the vogue among better museums for black labels had thankfully lapsed due to their being over-conspicuous and because they are “apt to be depressing.”17 Although, I must say that I was struck not only by the beauty but also by the poetry of those at the Wagner Free Institute. One of Philadelphia’s museum gems, the Wagner is a perfectly preserved (and unpreserved) nineteenth-century natural history museum. A case displaying forms of sea life sported black labels with white print, some of which had faded, leaving the SEA LILLIES, CORALS, and LAMP SHELLS, transformed into the new specimens of SEA LI IES, CORA S, and AMP HELL. In his book, North advises that, although white is generally the wall color of choice in galleries, white paper labels tend to discolor and show up the dust. He writes of textured and tinted papers, from buff to lilac to dark brown. And he recommends, due to its opacity, “the liquid-white preparation sold for cleaning canvas shoes” rather than white ink. “Blue ink on a primrose background makes for good legibility” and can “make an otherwise dull exhibition attractive.” And he personally favors handwritten over typed labels, because they appear less mechanical, more personal. If you must use a typewriter, he says, make sure that the ribbon is “unfading,” the alignment is good, and that the small enclosed letters are not blocked18 (a museum label should not look like a ransom note). From the 1927 Manual for the Small Museum, comes this tip: “It is customary to print four copies of each label: one on board for immediate use, two on board for reserve and on one white paper for pasting in a record book.”19 If not in a record book, wall labels should be kept on computer file to document this ephemeral feature of the exhibition.

The standard placement of labels follows this simple rule: because we read from left to right, the label should appear to the right of the object, at eye level, where it appears like a footnote to the work of art. To make the “reading” of art appear even less annotated, when he joined the staff of the Museum of Modern Art as a curator, Robert Storr introduced a new approach determined to further enhance the viewer’s aesthetic experience of the collection. He took the “tombstone” labels out from between artworks and positioned them in rows, or clusters, at the end of their respective wall. Longer explanatory labels on groups of works, or a relevant theme, are set off by themselves, ideally on a short wall, or column, not visually connected to the art at all. To subdue the visual crackle of print, Storr prefers a somewhat grayed-down black ink. The desire to free walls of text has lead to some further interesting solutions. Curator Jennifer Gross at the Yale University Art Gallery says that for a show on color, she color-coded parts of the wall and supplied viewers with a map. Not the most successful experiment she found, as “peop1e have trouble with maps.” Maps do seem more trouble than they’re worth. The walls are rid of labels, but so what: you’re busy looking down at a piece of paper, away from the art, struggling with the orientation of the room?20 Far better was Gross’s plan for a small show of modern bronzes. Unless it’s on a pedestal, sculpture is always attended by the problem of sitting in space with no immediately apparent place for labels. At Yale, viewers carried the labels with them, like keys on a ring; a reproduction on each card made it easy to identify works, read the tombstone, and find some interpretative text. These are just some variations on the what and where of wall labels, which when treated as objects, can assume more (or less) of a presence in relation to the art on view.


What Should a Label Say?

There should be no set standards for labels. Every exhibition calls for the curator to decide whether, and to what extent, labels will be used, how long they will be, and what voice they will adopt. When the decision is to make labels part of an installation, here are some general guidelines. Labels should talk to the viewer and to the art simultaneously. They should be written knowing that the art is there in front of the viewers, who are already engaged enough by what they see to want, not only to know more, but also to see more. Imagine the label as part of a three-way switch: from looking at the art, to reading the label, which points back to the art. In this ideal exchange, labels broker a larger understanding of the bigger picture of the exhibition itself. The viewer is not asked to be merely a reader, but an interpreter, who is welcome to bring his or her own unpredictable and unaccountable sense of meaning to what’s on view. On a more practical note comes another triangular motif. Curator Laura Hoptman, now of the New Museum in New York, recalls being taught an old museum standard that set the form for wall labels as a triangular in content. Accordingly, text proceeds from the specific to the general, as if in answer to an obvious question posed by the work of art or the show. This question, once answered, might lead to a broader discussion of history or context, a discussion, which the reader is free to follow as far as she or he likes. Whether or not, as a curator, one decides to abide by this triangle, its form does serve to underscore a basic premise of our practice: observation is the primary experience to be enhanced, not superseded (or worse, obfuscated) by explanation.

Labels speak for the curator, whose job it is to articulate the reason for an exhibition. When curators don’t use labels, or when the labels are badly written, it may indicate that the show was only vaguely conceived from the start. “Many installations are poorly labeled because they are without purpose and therefore cannot be labeled,” Coleman warns in his museum manual. (Coleman, incidentally also offers this concrete piece of advice: “If the concluding sentences of a label are written with a view to persuading the visitor to do something about what he has learned [like look at another picture in the show, or think about how it relates to daily life], the label attains to the greatest usefulness.”)21 Thus the reason to label might be reason itself. This is particularly so in the case of group exhibitions, where a proposal or premise is clearly being constructed, based on a particular group of works, which have no other reason for being together than a curator’s whim. This said, I would reiterate that all exhibitions, including monographic ones, are essentially essays. Ever present, the thread of the curator’s vision and thinking is a factor which labels can account for. Indeed, being among the most privileged of viewers, curators should never take their information for granted, particularly in the field of contemporary art. Call it the new connoisseurship––connoisseur means “to know,” after all. Today it seems clear that to recognize quality is to know what issues, politics, theories, histories, and images are at stake for artists and culture at large. Exhibitions should make visual those stakes, which can, in turn, be explained by curators through wall text. Even when the premise of a group show is something as apparent as the color blue, consider how reductive this can become. Without a label to say that, for Yves Klein, “International Klein Blue” was physical manifestation of otherwise invisible cosmic energy, his blue pigment is apt to be seen as simply the same color as the rest of the blue stuff in the show.

Having so heartily extolled the virtues of wall text, one might assume that the claim of this essay is that no curator worth his or her salt should produce an exhibition without copious amounts of didactics. Nothing could be further from the point. As outlined from the start, effective wall texts can be quite short (or nonexistent). More importantly, the writing of wall texts should be approached as an enterprise that is absolutely distinct from composing catalog prose or press releases. Never forget that viewers are, more often than not standing––a less than ideal position for reading. (Unless, like Mary Cassatt, you’ve an umbrella to lean on.) For this reason too, the language of labels should be tuned to viewers’ ears. An active voice and short sentences are one way to avoid inducing mental collapse on the gallery floor. Write as you yourself would like to be addressed. In his advice on writing labels, North recounts an anecdote about a label “accompanying a mounted lion in a large English museum: ‘Lion, a digitigrade carnivorous mammal belonging to the family Felidae.’ A visitor, asking what the label meant was told that the lion is a big cat which walks on the tips of its toes and eats flesh. ‘Then,’ he replied, ‘Why on earth didn’t the man who wrote the label say so?”22 This story reminds me of one that Richard Torchia, director of the art gallery at Arcadia University, tells of his annoyance at a museum label that compared an Andres Serrano photograph to an abstract expressionist painting, while delicately failing to mention that the photo was a picture of cum.

As much as possible, the label should appeal to someone who knows more, less, and as much as you do. Terms that are buzzwords in the art world (appropriation, Baudelarian, post-conceptual) can only be used when the meaning is shared and elucidated through the work itself. Why not equip viewers with the same heavy artillery with which we curators are armed? Language can be rigorous, or colloquial, as long as the overall tone is generous. It’s easy to hear when a label sounds pretentious (“I know more than you do”), or worse, patronizing, (“Dear ignoramus”). Unfortunately, it’s the art which then tends to suffer the viewer’s disdain. Nor should wall labels read like undigested résumés––what does it matter that an artist was up for a Turner Prize and will participate in the next Documenta, when you’re really just trying to make sense of this object before you? (And why waste words––good standing time––on listing credentials that many will find meaningless to begin with?) By all means, avoid mystification. The labels for the Guggenheim Museum’s Matthew Barney exhibition were laudable in that they dispensed with that completely expendable term “mixed media” and lovingly detailed every petroleum product and feather deployed. However, they were extremely ineffectual as interpretation, doing no more than representing in words the artist’s mythology––the complexity of which is self-evident through the work. As a colleague pointed out, this was a missed opportunity for a museum to inform a mass audience about key issues in contemporary art. As it was, a record number of visitors would have left without a clue why it is significant, or possible, for an artist to produce sculpture that visually functions as a film prop.

In researching this essay, I tried to learn from different institutions what policies exist for wall labels. Where I work, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania (which organized the Serrano show with the offensive label), for instance, the curator alone determines what goes on the wall. In speaking to larger, collecting institutions, it seemed that curatorial departments were predominantly in charge of originating the wall text. These were often vetted through education and editorial departments. I never spoke to a museum where educators actually wrote the wall texts, but there were rumors. What seems objectionable to this practice (should it exist) is not some fear that educators cannot write about art, but that curators would relinquish their authority as creators of exhibitions to those whose job it is to instruct. Yes, there is much to be learned by looking at art, but a label should aim to inspire enthusiasm and a sense of acumen about visual experience in its own right. Why is this exciting or profound? not What can this teach me? should be the label’s bead on expression.

When asked “who” their labels are written for, most museums described their intended reader as “college educated, but not necessarily in art.” Again, any rumors that curators must write for second-graders––no three syllable words––went unfounded. All of the major institutions have printed guidelines for label-writing. These guidelines set out the museum’s “house style” (clarity is appreciably the main concern); and define various types of labels (there might be appropriate lengths for different types, or levels of information). Guidelines might include rules like no foreign words (contrapposto) or technical-seeming terms (triptych); no references to other works of art or artists. Editorially speaking, these rules are not hard and fast, but open to negotiation. They mostly come into play when there is a question of sense, or meaning. One of my most interesting conversations was with Pamela Barr at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a museum that does not shy from using words like chinoiserie, when appropriate, in its labeling of art. Barr has the encyclopedic task of editing all of the museum’s wall texts. She works closely with curators to ensure they write not only for art historians, but for museum visitors as well. Producing an active voice and short sentences are among her editorial objectives. She also works with exhibition designers. There are traffic issues to consider, so that information (and viewers) literally flow through the galleries. A giant didactic pushed into a main artery is to be avoided, as are flotilla of small ones shoved into a corner. When I asked her about working with Richard Martin, Pamela Barr said it had been her great pleasure and honor to work with a curator who would seem to have broken every rule of institutional label writing.

Richard Martin (1945-99) is to be celebrated for the wall texts he composed for the exhibitions he created with collaborator Harold Koda. For many years the editor of Arts magazine, then director of the Fashion Institute of Technology, and lastly curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Martin was a man of supreme intelligence and vision. Working together with Koda, who carries on the team’s brilliant work at the Met, Martin curated exhibitions ranging from ‘jocks and Nerds to Fashion and Surrealism” to “Infrastructure,” a show about underwear. These shows are known as much for mixing fashion, art and ephemera as they are for their installation design––design in which text played a spectacular role. Printed in scripts stylistically appropriate to the given theme, quotes from sources ranging from symbolist poetry to pop culture to philosophy punctuated the space. (Think of Kosuth’s “Unmentionable” exhibition, but cast conceptually in pink not gray.) Labels, long and short, conveyed a sense of passionate interest not only for the particularities of the objects on view, but for their possible meanings in the world. Martin’s style of writing was erudite and expansive, full of his own pleasure in knowledge, in words, and in the act of interpretation. Take the words from “Bloom” for instance. The opening didactic for this 1995 exhibition begins: “‘Bloom’ surveys fashion’s treatment of botany and of the brash paintbox of flowers, revealing expressions of regimen and silence, beauty and youth, new life and morality, naturalism and allegory.”23 It goes on to conjure the fragrance of flowers, to speak of their language and fragility, to quote from Edna St. Vincent Millay, to liken a 1950s ball gown to “a bucolic, arcadian ideal,” and to see the influence of Burpee seed packages on a 1980s outfit. All in less than 300 words. That can be the power of wall text. When treated as writerly text, and not just a mode of description or information, what is written on the wall can provoke a receptive and associative state of mind. Labels have the potential of art itself, to be sensual, smart, and experiential.


I would like to thank those friends and colleagues, who took time to share their thoughts, which inform this essay, and in particular, Geoffrey Batchen and Chris Taylor for their helpful readings.


  1. Peter Schjeldahl, “Art Houses,” New Yorker, January 13, 2003, 87.
  2. Roberta Smith, “When Exhibitions Have More to Say than to Show,” New York Times, April 13, 2003.
  3. Audio guides are also, ostensibly, part of the conversation on didactics. They are the techno-brochure handouts of our day and they are also a topic in their own right. This essay will keep to what’s actually on the wall of an exhibition.
  4. F.J. North, Museum Labels: Handbook for Museum Curators, Part B, Section 3 (London: Museums Association, 1957), 4.
  5. Ibid., 5.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., 8.
  8. Ibid.
  9. See the bibliography in North, Museum Labels.
  10. Ibid., 31.
  11. Laurence Vail Coleman, Manual for Small Museums (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1927); see 223-31 for the chapter on labeling.
  12. Ibid., 224.
  13. Quoted from the wall label and brochure handout. It’s interesting to note that the imprint of the MJT, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Information, takes its name from a popular nineteenth-century British science magazine.
  14. Dime museums, in the tradition of Ripley’s Believe it or Not and P.T. Barnum, were freak shows of grotesque curiosities. Barnum famously acted as the barker and curator of his museum, and literally drummed up customers by banging on said instrument outside the museum. David Wilson, incidentally, is known to play the accordion outside the MJT.
  15. North, Museum Labels, 12.
  16. Bruce Chatwin, Utz (New York: Penguin Books, 1988), 20.
  17. North, Museum Labels, see the chapter “Fabric and Style,” 12-21.
  18. Ibid., 19.
  19. Coleman, Manual, 230.
  20. A checklist with numbers can work, unless the numbers are sequential in space and the checklist is alphabetical, as sometimes happens, to result in excessive paper turning.
  21. Coleman, Small Museums, 227
  22. North, Museum Labels, 34.
  23. Quoted with kind permission of Harold Koda, curator, Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.