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Writing Effective Art Exhibit Labels:
        A Nuts and Bolts Primer


Department of Education
Interpretation & Research team

Sara Bodinson, Director
Stephanie Pau, Associate Educator
Jackie Armstrong, Emily Fisher Landau Fellow
“Interpretive labels tell stories—
they are narratives, not lists of facts.”

           -Beverly Serrell, Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach
“Containing the length of labels is like packing for a trip… we are
 advised to stack our belongings in three separate piles —


 (1) the things we would like to take; (2) the things we think we
 need; and (3) the things we absolutely cannot get along without
 — and then take only the third group.”


                           -George Weiner, “Why Johnny Can’t Read Labels”
What’s The Big Idea?
The big idea clearly states the
exhibition’s scope and purpose.


All interpretive texts in a given
exhibition should link back to and
support one over-arching concept, or
big idea.
Different Types of Interpretive Texts



                                                    Extended
                                                    Labels
                                                    (100 words)




                                 Gallery Overview
                                 or Section texts
                                 (200 words)

Introductory texts (250 words)
Topics Most Helpful to Viewers
• Formal elements/Content (imagery, iconography, symbolism)

• Cultural and historical context

• Artist’s commentary on work, own philosophy

• Technique and process, or how a work is produced

• Why the object is considered art and why it is in the museum
Topics Least Helpful to Viewers
• Unsubstantiated assertions of aesthetic quality, comparative
  judgments, or connoisseurship
• Theoretical or specialized art historical information

• Lengthy biographical information about the artist

• Exhibition history or provenance
DO…                                     DON’T…
• Include concrete visual information; draw     • Write about what the reader cannot
  the eye back to the work of art                 see
• Work from specific (ideally a visual or       • Make reference to works of art that
  sensory detail) to general information          are not directly in view
• Ground your explanation in what the           • Mention other artists or works of art
  reader is likely to already know                without addressing a clear
• Write for the broadest possible audience,       connection to the work at hand
  using familiar vocabulary                     • Think of using clear, straightforward
• Explain technical or specialist terms           language as “dumbing it down”

• Clarify references made by titles or things   • Cram too many ideas into one
  that may not be evident just from looking       paragraph

• Include sophisticated concepts, as long as    • Tell visitors what to think, or make
  they are explained using non-exclusionary       unsubstantiated assertions of quality
  vocabulary                                    • Refer to visitors in third person
• Include quotes by the artist
• Write labels so that they stand alone
Interpretive Label Critique
       (10 minutes)
Re-write the first sentence of
    your assigned label
        (5 minutes)
Christo (Christo Javacheff)
              Package on Wheelbarrow, 1963
              Cloth, metal, wool, rope and twine

              Christo has excessively wrapped an object in a
              random manner distorting and concealing the
              original form and evoking all the mystery and
              curiosity associated with a gift-wrapped
              package. Similarly Christo’s wheelbarrow
              suggests industry and business, but the
              package, without identifiable shapes or marks,
              appears contradictory to the smartly designed
              packaging of a practical commercial industry.
              This work resonates with “Nouveau Realism”,

DRAFT LABEL   a 1960s group of artists working in France,
              with whom Christo was briefly associated, who
              sought inspiration from “modern nature.” By
              employing found objects and industrial
              materials these artists confounded the
              industrial and commercial processes with its
              aesthetic potential.


                                                     100 words
Edvard Munch, The Storm, 1893, Oil on
              canvas, 36 1/8 x 51 1/2" (91.8 x 130.8 cm)

              Munch depicts not a physical storm but one of
              inner, psychic turbulence and anxiety. The
              worried brushstroke and fraught purple and
              blue tonalities saturating the picture
              purposefully preclude catharsis, rendering the
              landscape pregnant with tension. Munch
              frequently summered in the Norwegian
              seaside resort of Aasgaardstrand in the
              company of fellow artists and writers of the
              anti-bourgeois Kristiana (Oslo) Bohème. The
              central woman, virginally white, clasps her
DRAFT LABEL   hands to her head, a gesture mimicked by the
              nearby circle of women—their quasi-ritual
              disposition evokes a pagan rite. The windows
              of the house—bright, yellow, arresting—
              partially anthropomorphize the building while
              suggesting a vibrant world from which the
              women are excluded.


                                                     109 words
Christo (Christo Javacheff)
               Package on Wheelbarrow, 1963
               Cloth, metal, wool, rope and twine

               In his early twenties Christo escaped the
               oppressive Communist regime in his native
               country and wandered in exile throughout
               Europe, supporting himself primarily by
               painting commissioned portraits. He has
               related his early wrapped-package works to
               the isolation and sadness of his coming of age
               in Bulgaria; the wheelbarrow, in particular,
               suggests a stateless, nomadic life. In 1964,
    LABEL      shortly after making Package on Wheelbarrow,
               Christo relocated to New York City. There, in
CURRENTLY ON   partnership with his wife, Jeanne-Claude, he
               has created large-scale temporary
   DISPLAY     installations, wrapping trees, islands, buildings,
               and bridges in fabric.


                                                          90 words
Edvard Munch, The Storm, 1893, Oil on
               canvas, 36 1/8 x 51 1/2" (91.8 x 130.8 cm)

               Munch painted The Storm in Aasgaardstrand,
               a small Norwegian seaside resort he and other
               artists frequented. The painting may have
               been inspired by a violent storm that occured
               there that summer, but it also conjures a sense
               of psychic distress. Standing near the water on
               an eerie blue Scandinavian summer night, a
               young woman clad in white clasps her hands
               to her head. Other women, standing apart from
               her, echo the anguished gesture. The windows
    LABEL      of the house—bright, yellow, arresting—imbue
               the building with an almost human presence
CURRENTLY ON   while suggesting a vibrant world from which
               the women are excluded.
   DISPLAY
                                                      100 words
Legibility & Accessibility
         Matters
Visitor Research

                                                     Qualitative research is “a
                                                     form of inquiry that helps us
                                                     understand and explain the
                                                     meaning of social
                                                     phenomena.”
                                                                  -Merriam, 1998
Color Chart: Reinventing Color 1950 to Today, 2008
Why do visitors read wall text?
                           Added information
                 •“Gives me knowledge of what I’m seeing”

                        Context and understanding
•“For the historical context – I like to know what was happening in the year
             something was made, something about the artist”

               Gives meaning and deepens appreciation
  • “I have my own impressions of art, but when I read this I go in a new
               direction – look at something in a new light”

                               Orientation
                   • “Helps me place myself in the space”

                                  Enjoyment
• “If there's something I’m really interested in (whether I know a lot about it or
nothing) I like to read the info available since it typically adds to my enjoyment”
QUESTIONS?

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Effective Labels Tell Stories

  • 1. Writing Effective Art Exhibit Labels: A Nuts and Bolts Primer Department of Education Interpretation & Research team Sara Bodinson, Director Stephanie Pau, Associate Educator Jackie Armstrong, Emily Fisher Landau Fellow
  • 2. “Interpretive labels tell stories— they are narratives, not lists of facts.” -Beverly Serrell, Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach
  • 3. “Containing the length of labels is like packing for a trip… we are advised to stack our belongings in three separate piles — (1) the things we would like to take; (2) the things we think we need; and (3) the things we absolutely cannot get along without — and then take only the third group.” -George Weiner, “Why Johnny Can’t Read Labels”
  • 4. What’s The Big Idea? The big idea clearly states the exhibition’s scope and purpose. All interpretive texts in a given exhibition should link back to and support one over-arching concept, or big idea.
  • 5. Different Types of Interpretive Texts Extended Labels (100 words) Gallery Overview or Section texts (200 words) Introductory texts (250 words)
  • 6. Topics Most Helpful to Viewers • Formal elements/Content (imagery, iconography, symbolism) • Cultural and historical context • Artist’s commentary on work, own philosophy • Technique and process, or how a work is produced • Why the object is considered art and why it is in the museum
  • 7. Topics Least Helpful to Viewers • Unsubstantiated assertions of aesthetic quality, comparative judgments, or connoisseurship • Theoretical or specialized art historical information • Lengthy biographical information about the artist • Exhibition history or provenance
  • 8. DO… DON’T… • Include concrete visual information; draw • Write about what the reader cannot the eye back to the work of art see • Work from specific (ideally a visual or • Make reference to works of art that sensory detail) to general information are not directly in view • Ground your explanation in what the • Mention other artists or works of art reader is likely to already know without addressing a clear • Write for the broadest possible audience, connection to the work at hand using familiar vocabulary • Think of using clear, straightforward • Explain technical or specialist terms language as “dumbing it down” • Clarify references made by titles or things • Cram too many ideas into one that may not be evident just from looking paragraph • Include sophisticated concepts, as long as • Tell visitors what to think, or make they are explained using non-exclusionary unsubstantiated assertions of quality vocabulary • Refer to visitors in third person • Include quotes by the artist • Write labels so that they stand alone
  • 10. Re-write the first sentence of your assigned label (5 minutes)
  • 11. Christo (Christo Javacheff) Package on Wheelbarrow, 1963 Cloth, metal, wool, rope and twine Christo has excessively wrapped an object in a random manner distorting and concealing the original form and evoking all the mystery and curiosity associated with a gift-wrapped package. Similarly Christo’s wheelbarrow suggests industry and business, but the package, without identifiable shapes or marks, appears contradictory to the smartly designed packaging of a practical commercial industry. This work resonates with “Nouveau Realism”, DRAFT LABEL a 1960s group of artists working in France, with whom Christo was briefly associated, who sought inspiration from “modern nature.” By employing found objects and industrial materials these artists confounded the industrial and commercial processes with its aesthetic potential. 100 words
  • 12. Edvard Munch, The Storm, 1893, Oil on canvas, 36 1/8 x 51 1/2" (91.8 x 130.8 cm) Munch depicts not a physical storm but one of inner, psychic turbulence and anxiety. The worried brushstroke and fraught purple and blue tonalities saturating the picture purposefully preclude catharsis, rendering the landscape pregnant with tension. Munch frequently summered in the Norwegian seaside resort of Aasgaardstrand in the company of fellow artists and writers of the anti-bourgeois Kristiana (Oslo) Bohème. The central woman, virginally white, clasps her DRAFT LABEL hands to her head, a gesture mimicked by the nearby circle of women—their quasi-ritual disposition evokes a pagan rite. The windows of the house—bright, yellow, arresting— partially anthropomorphize the building while suggesting a vibrant world from which the women are excluded. 109 words
  • 13. Christo (Christo Javacheff) Package on Wheelbarrow, 1963 Cloth, metal, wool, rope and twine In his early twenties Christo escaped the oppressive Communist regime in his native country and wandered in exile throughout Europe, supporting himself primarily by painting commissioned portraits. He has related his early wrapped-package works to the isolation and sadness of his coming of age in Bulgaria; the wheelbarrow, in particular, suggests a stateless, nomadic life. In 1964, LABEL shortly after making Package on Wheelbarrow, Christo relocated to New York City. There, in CURRENTLY ON partnership with his wife, Jeanne-Claude, he has created large-scale temporary DISPLAY installations, wrapping trees, islands, buildings, and bridges in fabric. 90 words
  • 14. Edvard Munch, The Storm, 1893, Oil on canvas, 36 1/8 x 51 1/2" (91.8 x 130.8 cm) Munch painted The Storm in Aasgaardstrand, a small Norwegian seaside resort he and other artists frequented. The painting may have been inspired by a violent storm that occured there that summer, but it also conjures a sense of psychic distress. Standing near the water on an eerie blue Scandinavian summer night, a young woman clad in white clasps her hands to her head. Other women, standing apart from her, echo the anguished gesture. The windows LABEL of the house—bright, yellow, arresting—imbue the building with an almost human presence CURRENTLY ON while suggesting a vibrant world from which the women are excluded. DISPLAY 100 words
  • 16. Visitor Research Qualitative research is “a form of inquiry that helps us understand and explain the meaning of social phenomena.” -Merriam, 1998 Color Chart: Reinventing Color 1950 to Today, 2008
  • 17. Why do visitors read wall text? Added information •“Gives me knowledge of what I’m seeing” Context and understanding •“For the historical context – I like to know what was happening in the year something was made, something about the artist” Gives meaning and deepens appreciation • “I have my own impressions of art, but when I read this I go in a new direction – look at something in a new light” Orientation • “Helps me place myself in the space” Enjoyment • “If there's something I’m really interested in (whether I know a lot about it or nothing) I like to read the info available since it typically adds to my enjoyment”