Some Thoughts on Museum-Speak

Museum SpeakHaving passed the milestone of fifty museums reviewed a few weeks back, I’m beginning to have a sense of some general patterns and tendencies, both in museums themselves and in what I like (or dislike) about them. One thing that I’ve become increasingly conscious of is the peculiar language of museum-speak: the way curators write descriptions of art or artifacts.

The Tyranny of the Text

Wall texts are (almost) inescapable in modern museums.  That’s good and bad.  It’s indisputably valuable to get filled in on what you’re looking at, and much contemporary art is incomprehensible without an explanation of some sort.  And yet, sometimes I feel I’d be freer and happier without the inescapable words on the wall.  

One of the things I love about the Frick is the lack of wall texts in the permanent collection (they do succumb to using them for temporary shows).  Visitors see the art with no more than the artist and title of the work discreetly on the frame. You have to spring for a book or pick up a free audio guide if you want descriptions and context. It’s refreshing.

Exceptional cases like that aside, virtually any museum visit involves reading the walls. And art people use a standardized and specialized language that is erudite, sometimes to the point of pretentiousness, and makes significant assumptions of the reader’s baseline knowledge.

As a highly educated, privileged person, that works fine for me.  Generally museum-speak is not badly written, but frequently verbose and annoyingly stilted.  But in visiting populist museums like BRIC, El Museo del Barrio, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts (places I think of as “starter museums”), I’ve noticed that even while they are trying to reach a different audience, they usually adhere to museum-speak, a language that may not be terribly welcoming or useful to their target audiences.

Examples

Along with taking notes, I’ve been snapping pictures of wall texts as an aide-mémoire (I can be pretentious too).  That provides a bunch of text from which to draw examples.  The following, chosen pretty much at random, are pretty typical.
From El Museo:  Catalina Chervin, Songs 16 from the portfolio Canto

Inspired by artists driven by emotions like the post-impressionists, Catalina Chervin found a way of conveying this through expressionist prints.  In her own words, her work is a “manner of thinking that involves the emotions.  It is the most truthful part of my inner self.   It is like walking round the ‘edge’ of the universe that I can find only when I am working.”  The Canto portfolio is a group of images that serve as illustration for Canta! by the Jewish poet, playwright, and Auschwitz victim Itzhak Katzenelson.  The images are a mix of hard and soft ground etching, with Chervin’s signature abstract style rendered with a powerful, expressive line.

From Brooklyn:  James Hamilton, The Last Days of Pompeii

The devastation of Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. was an object of popular fascination in the mid-eighteenth century.  At that time the volcano began a sustained period of renewed activity.  Simultaneously, archaeologists began excavations of the ancient buried city. The theme appealed greatly to Romantic painters on both sides of the Atlantic.  European by birth, James Hamilton had a taste for the philosophical concept of the Sublime and an obsession with the cyclical nature of societies and civilizations.  He applied these interests to the Roman Empire in The Last Days of Pompeii.”

From the Bronx, Rocio Garcia, La Nieve (The Snow), “The paintings of Rocio

Garcia employs a cinematographic sensibility to narratives tinged with sexuality, violence and eroticism.  After returning to Havana from her studies at the Repin Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg, Russia in the 1980s, Garcia embarked on a series of works that focuses on challenging the stereotyped options of womanhood and the female figure, as well as masculinity and homosexuality.  [more description omitted]

None of these is terrible writing (though equally none of them is great).  But all could be rewritten to be more active, more concise.  Caption writers could help someone who doesn’t know what “expressionist” means or who the post-impressionists were, who might find it easier to understand “the volcano started erupting regularly” as opposed to “sustained period of renewed activity,” or who would get “like the movies” but might have trouble saying, much less understanding, “cinematographic.”

Improving Museum-Speak

I have some concrete suggestions for how to make this better, and one thing to avoid.

The thing not to do is deploy multiple wall texts.  It’s condescending and unhelpful to have a high-falutin’ text and an “average person” text.  To say nothing of taking up too much space on the wall. Though sometimes separate kids’ captions are a good idea.  

Electronic screens would change this. I haven’t reviewed the Museum of Math yet, but their exhibits are all accompanied by onscreen descriptions, and a visitor can choose basic, intermediate, or math-genius levels of detail.  That’s impractical for many museums, but still an instructive example of a way to serve different audiences well.

Starter museums in particular should aim squarely at the average person with the text on the wall.  Make a cognoscenti version available in an app, or an audio guide, or some other, unobtrusive place.

Anyone writing museum wall texts should own a copy of Strunk & White, but also Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer, in which he describes complex concepts using a vocabulary limited to the 1,000 most commonly used English words.  It’s a sure antidote to stilted text.  I’m not saying limit museum captions to that vocabulary; they’d sound ridiculous.  But it does concretely show that it’s possible to express complex ideas in even the simplest language.

I also think wall texts should deploy bullets and questions to succinctly make points and engage the reader.  All professional writing is going in that direction, and while some writers use those techniques badly or lazily, that doesn’t make it wrong.

Some places write captions pretty well.  Brooklyn’s Egyptian installation focuses partially around topics, both sacred and mundane.  Here’s a sample: 

The Ancient Egyptians believed that personal grooming was an essential part of good health and sexual attractiveness.  Men and women shaved their body hair and cut the hair on their heads very short or shaved it completely as a precaution against lice.  They donned voluminous wigs to signal heightened sexual interest.  Eye makeup such as kohl not only protected against sun glare–much like the lampblack used by modern football players–but also emphasized the eyes’ size, shape, and natural allure…

You get the main point right away, and you learn something about the ancient Egyptians as human beings, relatable to both running backs and drag queens.  

Although I like that phrasing even better.

All museums, even the high-end ones, would benefit from using more everyday language on their walls. As I’ve read a lot of wall text the past two months, I know I’d find it refreshing.

In addition to broader U.S. audiences, international visitors would benefit as well. I recently experienced that in reverse. I studied Japanese as an undergrad and lived there for a year.  My language skills are currently rusty to say the least.  But when I visited last fall, I discovered that I could pretty much read the kid-level museum captions. They were a great help when I visited places that didn’t feature a lot of English explanation.

Avoiding museum-speak might seem a small thing among all the other things museums are doing to attract broader audiences. But I believe it would have an outsized impact as museums preach and practice greater inclusiveness.

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