Dear [Contemporary Art] Label

At a webinar hosted by the AAM last spring,  I saw a stream of art museum professionals looking for label writing techniques to put to use.  Although the suggestions posited were relevant in any space intended to educate a visiting public, many requested more examples specific to art museums. Over the summer, I had the pleasure of meeting Beverly Serrell, one of the presenters and the woman who literally wrote the book on label writing. Her book covers techniques that grasp visitor attention despite the static medium of a traditional label. She agreed that art museum professionals were looking for more specifics, despite the universal approaches she suggests.

So why the insurgence of requests for art-specific label tips and examples? Art museum professionals may be thinking their objects require a particular type of sensitivity. Art interpretation depends greatly on an individual's epistemological beliefs, especially contemporary works which usually are not simply intended to give you an idea of what something looks like (e.g. a portrait). Instead, contemporary pieces beg visitors to think, to test ideas, to consider options...even prompt an emotional reaction. What role does a label have in that?

The easy way out is one many take. Whether by curatorial decision or by request of the artist, labels are omitted entirely, or provide rough basics, like the artist's name and the title of a work. However, most college-aged adults I spoke with for my thesis study suggested minimal label content was an invitation to disengage, rather than inviting non-prescriptive thought and consideration as is intended. One explained:

It's really frustrating to me when all [the label] says is the name, the date. Generously donated by so-and-so.

Visitors turn to labels for interpretive support, but finding nothing there can leave them feeling alienated or frustrated.

Visitors turn to labels for interpretive support, but finding nothing there can leave them feeling alienated or frustrated.

When these visitors look for more information, they are searching for somewhere to start, looking to fill in gaps, or comparing their conclusions against something with greater authority. When a label responds with something they aren't able to build from (e.g., an artwork called Untitled) this magnifies feelings of low self-efficacy (or, confidence making an interpretation) for a visitor who is already outside their comfort zone. Essentially, this label communicates, "If you don't already get it, it's not worth explaining."

Having worked with Education departments in the past, I know this is not the attitude intended by these institutions. They are hopeful that visitors will tap into their critical thinking,  build off of other pieces in the gallery, pick up a rack card and read about the thought that went into bringing these works together into one space. However, for people who haven't been to any museum in a year, they might not be aware of or comfortable with these techniques. It's similar to the experience of walking into a new restaurant; you may be apprehensive about mispronouncing the name of a foreign dish and need to ask questions about the ingredients (what is almond persillade?) before you are confident with your order. Without anyone to turn to, these visitors will simply skip over and move on to something they do have some ideas about.

Up next, I'll share what visitors look for in a contemporary artwork label. Until then, look around your spaces and consider how easy it is for new visitors to get their questions answered. Chances are, your visitors would love more  information; they're just not sure how to ask.