Do you read exhibit labels? Museum Exhibit Musings

Do you read labels when you visit a museum exhibit?

Yesterday afternoon, during a volunteer function here at the museum, I went into an exhibit we had on 3-dimensional art and sculptures. When I walked in (knowing most of the people in the room), I made the comment that one thing I liked to do was try to decide for myself what the artist was saying and then read the label to see what the artist intended to say. This got the group talking. I mentioned that for one of the statues in the room I had a very different perspective of it when I first looked at it and then started to see it in a completely different light when I read the label.

This started a fascinating discussion. No one in the room had read any of the labels. And each person had a different perspective on that piece of art. Some were a little offended by it until I explained the artist’s intended meaning. Others, from a different generation, saw a pop culture reference in the work that others hadn’t seen (and which was not intended by the artist). But what, again, struck me most of all was that no one had read the label. Not reading the label had led to them creating their own opinions that were created from a great deal of misinformation. After a discussion around the labels their opinion of the object completely changed.

Knowing the amount of time curators spend researching and writing labels (and the amount of important information on them), this gave me a lot of pause for thought. What makes people want to read labels? What stops them from reading labels? What would you like to see on the labels?

This discussion also got me thinking about intended and perceived meaning. Is one of these stronger? Which one has more relevance? Is the most important thing what a curator WANTS an exhibit to say or is it more important what visitors BELIEVE an exhibit says?

Oh, and just for the record, I do read museum labels. But I often wish there was a second label (or more) that was erasable where the visitor (okay, me) could create their own personal label about how they interact with that object or topic.