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Museum Wall Text: To Read or Not to Read?
Museum wall text has lately been a big debate in the art world...
Art Stuff 07 Nov 2018

Imagine: you’re strutting out of the museum after seeing the Best. Exhibit. Ever. Your whole world is spinning and your creative juices are gushing forward with the power of a million rivers. You can’t wait to spam everyone you know with pics and genius breakthroughs about the nature of the universe. That’s how good this exhibit was.
But then, something happens. Maybe it’s your friend, maybe it’s your mom, but someone asks you what your favorite piece was. And then suddenly, you can’t remember a single piece of artwork that you just saw. It’s like someone opened a trapdoor in your brain and the past few hours just fell out. Umm.. Starry Night?
starry night
It wasn’t Starry Night.
What gives?
If you’re anything like me, maybe you spent a little too much time reading every single piece of wall text instead of actually looking at the work. You can quote what some random curator thought about the seminal work of Picasso’s blue period, but you couldn’t pick the piece out of a lineup (unless it’s the only blue painting, obviously). Oops.
Museum wall text, something 99.9% of the world literally doesn’t care about but gets art historians super fired up, has lately been a big debate in the art world. The rise of social justice movements means museums have to try way harder to be PC in the way they describe each piece. Art critic Eric Gibson even called them “mind control.” To be fair, museums are taking a closer look at what they’re throwing up on their walls, giving wall text a much-needed makeover.
Courtesy guerrillagirls.com
The Guerilla Girls have a few pointers for your next piece of museum wall text…
So today, we’re diving into this very important topic: to read or not to read museum wall text?

First, let’s take a look at the pros. 

1) Obviously, they usually give you some context to better understand the work (and sound super scholarly in front of your friends later).
2) Some intern probably had to get stronger glasses after staying up all night proofreading the entire show for typos. Show some appreciation.
3) They’re loaded with Big Art Words. You can sharpen your toolkit so you can BS your way through any art world interview.
4) You’ll never be caught off guard not knowing if the sculpture is of Rodin’s wife or mistress, à la Midnight in Paris. Super awk.
5) If you ever find yourself in front of a firing squad that’s forcing you to quote what Cezanne wrote in a letter to Miró in 1923, you’ll have a much better chance of surviving. And then you’ll get a book deal for the story and star in the biopic as yourself. All because you read the museum wall text.

And now, the cons. 

1) When you close your eyes to sleep that night, you’re going to see more jargon than artwork.
math lady
You trying to figure out wtf it means to “disarticulate painting” at 3am instead of floating happily through mental images of the exhibition.
2) Lots of museum wall text is condescending, badly written (like, worse than those papers you had to edit in your Freshman writing seminar) and basically tell you what to think. No thanks.
3) If you actually take the time to read every single one, you’ll be exhausted, cross-eyed and dying for a sandwich by the second room.
By the fourth room, you’ll be clinically dehydrated and feel like you’ve been in this museum for eons. Did I have a life before the Pompidou? It seems so far away…
When the museum closes, they’ll find you in the last room, curled up in fetal position and softly crying. All the other visitors thought you were part of the exhibit. Moral of the story: bring a water bottle and skim the labels.
performance art
Performance art or someone’s vital organs shutting down?
4) It’s hard to absorb a piece on a deeper, holistic level when your brain is busy analyzing the medium, composition, social and historical context, etc. etc. You did enough academic talking about art in college. Now, just let the work speak to you.
5) 90% of wall text is either already super obvious (“the painter uses a warm palette to create a sense of warmth”… tell me something I don’t know) or someone’s subjective opinion about the artist’s intention. And tbh, you don’t need a PhD to figure that out… just look at the work!

So, what’s the verdict?

When in doubt, go for the happy medium. Look at all the work first, let it absorb, then if you feel compelled to find out more, read the wall text. In the wise words of the late and great Hannah Montana, you get the best of both worlds.
best of both worlds

Happy museum-ing!

Text by Katya Lopatko
Photos via Wikipedia, PROJECTS/RESISTANCE, O’bon Paris, Know Your Meme, Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej, Hannah Montana / Miley Cyrus Forever, tomsmithdesign

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