More Invitation than Explanation: Writing a Label

by Michael O'Malley

last edited on Wed. October 15 2014

To label something is to cleanly categorize it, to place it into a column so that the appropriate boundaries can be used to consider and examine the thing. Such categorization and construction of boundaries suggest a closed conclusion, with little room for additional interpretation. Museum object labels are often also called “didactics,” a term which captures the patronizing and ostensibly morally authoritative tone often taken on by labels. Recently, though, the label’s supposedly neutral voice and ability to issue a verdict has come under scrutiny, its power structures exposed.

Originally, the label was never meant to stand on its own as an authority. The goal was to complement a curator’s lecture and to spark subsequent discussion. Later, labels served as identification slips, informing a general public who weren’t interested in or able to purchase the exhibition catalog. In both of these early iterations, the label was a stand-in for what was meant to be a fuller experience. By the end of the nineteenth century, though, labels had broken from this tradition and become exhaustive instructional resources, a textbook for items in a display case.

In the post World War II era, the label’s role had transformed from instructing to engaging. Wall text was “limited to only that which would pique the viewer’s curiosity and entice him to look directly at the object.”[1]. The less time looking at the label, the better; a visitor’s eyes should be on the object.

This approach is akin to the way Michael Christiano, Director of Education and Interpretation here at the Smart Museum, envisioned the label-writing process for Carved, Cast, Crumpled. He explains, “We’re introducing a new way of label writing in conjunction with this exhibition, and ultimately we’re trying to offer some context and information that brings people back to the object...back to the act of looking?”[2] This process aims more to provoke curiosity than to answer questions about the objects.

Labels that encourage the viewer to dwell at length on individual artworks and to consider them in new and unexpected ways require that their length, style, and tone do not contextualize objects in a manner that forecloses further experience of the work. The labels must be more of an invitation than an explanation. Using this method, the label writer is freed from speaking from a position of institutional authority, enabling him or her to experiment with less formal and more evocative language than what might usually be expected in a museum object label.

On your next visit to Carved, Cast, Crumpled, consider how the object labels might be different from what you expected or how they intend to redirect your attention to the objects they describe in an attempt to promote new, unexpected, and bold encounters with art.

Compiled from The Politics of Labels by Martha Ward published in The Smart Museum of Art: 2001–2002 Bulletin, pp. 10–19, and from Object Labels Writing Guide by Cameron Hu, Smart Museum internal document

1. Ward, p. 15
2. quoted from the video Carved, Cast, Crumpled: Sculpture All Ways