By Sally Macdonald, on 4 April 2013
Museums are full of objects, but they are usually just as full – too full, often – of text. With a combination of object labels, introductory panels and interactive exhibits, a single display space can feature thousands of words.
Yet almost all of this writing is anonymous; it is very rare to find any kind of label or exhibition authored by a member of museum staff. Instead the ‘voice of the museum’ is presented as objective truth. As those of us who work in museums are well aware, most displays – while they might represent a collective effort on the part of a number of people – are the result of a series of individual decisions. We choose the objects to display, choose where they go and choose what we say about them. We will almost certainly argue with each other about some of these decisions, but the end result will be presented as a single authoritative selection and voice. Often, a ‘house style’ is adopted for text, which – while it may well make displays clearer to understand – will also help to paper over differences of opinion or approach. Even the V&A’s excellent gallery text guidelines, which encourage museum staff to ‘bring in the human element’ and ‘write as you would speak’, stop short of suggesting that you should say who you are.
Added to this, almost all museums have galleries where the displays and interpretation haven’t changed for decades. All the staff know that these displays are out of date, that much of the information in them needs revision, but this will almost certainly not be clear to the public. There is no equivalent to the frontispiece in a book, or the documentary credits, which would tell the visitor who put the thing together and when.
This reluctance to author displays, to name the people who composed them, seems increasingly old fashioned. Particularly so in a university museum context, where authorship is paramount and where the tradition of academic freedom rests upon the belief that individuals should be free to express their opinions in order that they can be opened up to further debate. In a world where individual comment is increasingly ‘out there’, in blogs such as this one, and where co-curation with academic or community partners is increasingly common, it is surely time we started owning up to the fact that most museum text is someone’s personal opinion, albeit informed and evidenced in a variety of ways.
The stores and cupboards of UCL museums contain lots of objects with hand-written labels. Most of these date from a pre-computer age when it was only worth typing a label if was going on display. Handwriting personalises the information immediately, and if you work in the museum for any length of time you learn to recognise different individual styles, the traces of former curators, some of them now dead, reminding you of their passions and their personalities. There are probably all sorts of reasons why a wholesale return to handwritten labels would not be a good idea, but is it worth thinking about how we might, as museum staff, own up to authorship of exhibitions and displays?