Move over priceless artefacts – 3 interventions that show labels are the most important aspect of museums
By Kyle Lee-Crossett, on 10 April 2018
Welcome back to Label Detective, a blog series that flips things around by investigating how museum labels can reveal fundamental principles about how museums are put together.
Labels may not get much attention, but they’re one of the key things that make a museum feel like a museum—along with features like glass cases, and special lighting. Take those away, and it’s not a museum but a garage. One of my favourite examples of the impact of labels comes from this tweet:
Your kids are going to do things they shouldn’t. It helps if you married someone with a sense of humour. pic.twitter.com/VVTstejBJO
— Eric Massicotte (@DrMassicotte) November 14, 2017
Although it’s not a museum setting, this shows how the layering of museum features like a label and a frame can radically change the context and the feel of something. In this case, they transform the frustrating evidence of a child defacing your walls to a mock-celebrated piece of artwork that’s been shared on the internet over 120,000 times.
Changing or altering the expected format or content of ‘normal’ museum labels can also have dramatic impact on how objects are perceived. I’ve picked three of my favorite examples of label interventions, starting chronologically with:
1. The work of artist Fred Wilson
Since his 1992 exhibition, ‘Mining the Museum’ at the Maryland Historical Society, Fred Wilson’s artistic interventions into the interpretation of race and American history have had a huge impact on the museum world. In ‘Mining the Museum’, Wilson re-organised and re-installed the Maryland Historical Society’s collection, creating labels for objects that draw attention to how everyday racism made both shocking presences and absences in the collection. Many of his labels sound innocuous. A case labeled ‘Metalwork 1793-1880’ displays an ornate silver tea set alongside a pair of slave shackles. ‘Cabinetmaking 1820-1860’ arranges a series of elaborate side chairs and armchairs to face a whipping post. In another area, pedestals with busts of Henry Clay, Napoleon Bonaparte and Andrew Jackson are mirrored by empty pedestals, labelled with the names of Benjamin Banneker, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass.
2. ‘The Past is Now’ at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (on until 24 June)
‘The Past is Now’ addresses the city of Birmingham’s relationship to the British Empire. The exhibition was co-curated by the museum and a group of local activists who worked to challenge the ‘neutral’ tone of museum interpretation, which often assumes a white writer talking to a white audience. Sumaya Kassim, one of the co-curators, describes how this not only meant bringing new stories into the museum but also sharing fuller and more accurate stories about what was already there. When addressing the legacy of Joseph Chamberlain, often called the ‘father’ of the city of Birmingham, Kassim writes, ‘we gave [Chamberlain] room to explain his imperialist, racist ideology, exploring how his social reforms in Birmingham were made at the expense of the colonies’ (italics mine).
Read more about Kassim’s experience of co-curating the exhibition here.
3. The Museum of Transology at Brighton Museum (ongoing until summer 2018)
The Museum of Transology’s curator E-J Scott didn’t have an existing collection to reinterpret because there was no major collection of transgender material before he started soliciting donations. The majority of the Museum of Transology’s objects are extremely ordinary, made up of contemporary mass-produced artefacts like makeup, clothing, and printed ephemera. However, each object has a unique label tags, written by the person who donated the object, that contextualize and elevate them out of the everyday. Each handwritten tag shares informative, funny, and touching stories about trans identity and expression. In the Museum of Transology, the labels and objects are truly interdependent—neither could be in the museum without the other.
A tag next to a tube of lipstick says, ‘This lipstick was from my wonderful sister who was the first family member to accept and support my transition’. The tag on a pair of purple-striped boxer shorts reads: ‘Stripey Monstrosity. At the start of my transition I asked my mom for boxers and she came up with this! As lovely as she is, I couldn’t wait to pluck up the courage to buy something less tragic!’.
Next time I’ll be exploring three more interventions on a similar theme. In the meantime, you can read past Label Detective blogs, on topics from the legacy of eugenics in Egyptian archaeology, why a Portuguese Man O’War isn’t an individual, evolutionary theory, and more.