Captionless exhibitions

Dan Hill has a rave review of The Barbican’s Future City exhibition that reminded me I’d meant to write something about it. Unfortunately I was going to moan rather than rave. The exhibition suffered from a severe lack of contextual information that left me bewildered by much of it, something I’ve found at a few exhibitions recently.

Let’s start with Future City. Each exhibit (models of buildings, drawings of buildings, maps, etc) had a caption telling you its name and who created it. There was nothing more to tell you why this item was important, what effect it had, what its intention was, even whether or not it was built.

Each group of exhibits did have a single large wall display of explanatory text (see Dan’s photo). This is better than nothing but seems designed more for impact rather than usefulness. It’s hard to read (long, closely-leaded lines, often in capitals) and sometimes it’s an effort to piece together the relevant text with the particular exhibits (and their tiny captions) on the other side of the room.

Maybe it’s supposed to be an effort. Maybe I’m supposed to put some work into investigating the ideas. Pah. If I wanted to investigate I’d go and do some research. If you’re putting on an exhibition it seems an obvious step to explain, clearly, why each item is on display. If I knew a lot about experimental architecture and planning Future City would be a dream come true because I could place each exhibit in context myself. In reality though, while I’m fascinated by the subject, I don’t know nearly enough about it to do this without some help. It didn’t take long before I gave up, walked quickly around the remaining rooms and left feeling disappointed and stupid.

I’m sure plenty has been written about captions in galleries before, particularly when it comes to “art”, rather than Future City’s more practical “design”. Maybe the artwork should speak for itself, maybe the viewer should make of it what they can without being told what it is? My tolerance for this line of thought has waned from a low starting point over the years.

I recently saw British Art Show 06 at Bristol’s Arnolfini gallery and the city museum and craved some explanation. Each piece had a title and the name of the artist but no further explanation. A couple of pieces were interesting visually (although photos weren’t allowed so I can’t show you) but I have no idea what those or any of the others were about. What was their point? Why did someone spend time creating them? Why are they worth exhibiting? It’s no wonder modern art often gets scoffed at when it’s so impenetrable and there’s no attempt to justify it.

The RCA Summer Show 2006 had a good range of exhibition styles. The decent parts, like the section featuring Availabot, had a paragraph or two for each exhibit to explain what it was, both clearly written and clearly presented. The room of drawings and paintings had useful captions but these were printed in small type, low down on the wall that were harder to read. The product design was over-designed, with the products obscured by some enthusiastic exhibition design, although explanations were present (if you could find the right one for the right product). But another section had only the disappointing duo of exhibit title and artist name, leaving me bewildered as to the point (“Little beds going round a Scalextric track… that’s, er, nice.”)

Out of all the difficulties involved in staging an exhibition, it seems like such an obvious and simple thing to do: explain what you’re exhibiting. Unless you only want experts to visit your show, help everyone else get the most out of it. At least give them a nudge as to the import of things, so they come away feeling they’ve learned something and want to find out more, rather than leave feeling confused and frustrated.

Comments

  • Fair point Phil. I actually thought Future City scored OK on this point, but it is a pet peeve of mine. I think, traditionally, British galleries in particular have veered away from supplying contextual information for fear of appearing didactic i.e. they’re afraid of being accused of saying “this is the ‘one true way’ you should interpret this work”. Which I think is patronising hogwash, as the audience are smart enough to interpret and filter the information for themselves - to believe it or not. And if they’re not, at least they walk away with something which they can test over time, as they gain further knowledge of the subject. Besides I personally believe there is a need for authority and explanation around this stuff. In short, expertise.

    I found the V&A’s Modernism show lacking in this respect, as there is SO MUCH historical context that would’ve been interesting around this work. And while I thought Future City was OK - and personally loved the presentation, with the graphic design supplying its own, non-literal, context - I was expecting the exhibition catalogue to really go to town on the supporting information about the historical social and cultural conditions. It didn’t, as I briefly noted in my piece. So I think there is real potential for an orchestrated context experience (ahem) - from exhibition to catalogue to website to events - through which users might engage and discover. You *do* have to work a bit, though, which is no bad thing too :)

    This is where there’s the opportunity for all these different media to work together around a theme like ‘Future City’ or ‘Modernism’, and I’d like to see more people take on that kind of orchestration.

    Anyway, while I think Future City was OK on supporting information (though as you note, it is a favourite subject of mine) I think you’re bang on in general.

    More context! More explanation! More information! More expertise!

  • I think at least part of the explanation for this is that museums and galleries are in thrall to their own version of Jakob’s

    “How Users Read on the Web…
    They don’t.”