Monday, July 16, 2007

The writings on the wall

One obvious difference between dealer art galleries and public art galleries is the lack of explanatory wall texts attached to the art works. While it is often interesting to have lots of information about the works you are looking at, wall labels can be just as easily a diversion, as well as a design challenge. Where did these explanatory labels come from? You can find the answer in Riches, Rivals, and Radicals: 100 Years of Museums in America by Marjorie Schwarzer. This volume includes an essay on wall texts by Ingrid Schaffner. As this American Association of Museums book has more than you, or we, could possibly want to know about wall labels, a few highlights.

Shaffner notes: “In 1857 the British House of Commons passed a rule ‘that in national museums objects would be accompanied by a brief Description thereof, with the view of conveying useful Information to the Public, and of sparing them the expense of a Catalogue.’

And then: 'By 1890, labels were printed for general distribution. They regularly ran to 300 words and threatened to turn exhibition displays into textbooks.'

Wall labels were brought to contemporary art museums by Alfred Barr at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Pre-Barr labels were attached to the frames of the paintings. Barr (no relation) moved them onto the wall and added extra details about the work. Now you know.

Image: Reading labels in Brussels