Learning Research

The Writing on the Wall

In this Clore MLA Museums Fellow 2009/10 Gill Hart explores how a new approach to Museum and Gallery interpretation, one based on respecting different forms of expertise, can improve and enhance our working relationships and the way we communicate with our audiences.

Photo by Yeo Khee on Unsplash

Gill Hart is Head of Education at the National Gallery in London and has worked in museum and gallery education since 2000.

Walking up to the front door of some of my favourite galleries, I am struck by what I am met with:words. There are words everywhere. Banners, signage, floor plans, programme guides, information about the audio guide (words in your ear), rules (sadly)- and thatʼs just at the front door. Further into the building, every room, object, painting or empty space is accompanied with an explanatory text, telling you what the thing is, why you canʼt touch it or why it has been removed. These visually rich environments are becoming more and more mediated by language, partly in the belief that this makes a museum or art gallery more enriching and accessible. Attempts to contextualise collections with words are being made across the globe. It is very much part of the 21st century museum experience. 

I find this simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. Who writes all these words and how do they go about doing it? Are the messages that we send out into the world in congruence with the writing on the walls inside? Do we use communication processes that speak harmoniously to one another? The gap between how we present ourselves (verbally) to the outside world and what a visitor experiences after walking through the door is, I fear, in danger of widening. With this in mind, this paper will focus on who is doing the writing on the walls and what processes are followed to do so.

My motivation to focus on this stems from the growing dissatisfaction I have with the kind of information that we produce within the walls of museums and galleries. As a visitor I am often disappointed or bored by what I read next to exhibits. As a professional, I am frequently frustrated that more time and effort is not apportioned to making the most of the vast range of expertise across the personnel spectrum. There are many voices to be heard within any museum or gallery and yet the words written on the walls for the visitors are given a voice by a select few. It is how these many voices might be incorporated into the way we communicate and what messages we transmit that is of interest here. I want to explore how we might apply creative and imaginative ways of forming collaborative enterprise with colleagues for the benefit of our organisations as well as the audiences for whom we purport to be serving. What could we be doing in order to be better heard and read?

I believe it is important to co-create resources with colleagues and feel that we may not quite be there yet in the processes we use in our attempts to collaborate with one another. If we could create more opportunities to break away from the departmental roles allocated by appointment and work in cross-departmental ways more often, we could amount to more than the sum of our parts. In ʻThriving in the Knowledge Age: New Business Models for Museums and other Cultural Institutionsʼ, John Falk and Beverley Sheppard provide a concise summary of the departmentalisation that has taken place:

 Most of us begin working in museums because we believe in the work, because  something in museums move us, because we can see them continuing to make a  difference in the world. We translate this conviction into a myriad of roles, defining  ourselves by our individual set of functions – curator, registrar, administrator, educator, marketer and fundraiser among others. We quickly divide into areas of  special interests, skills and frameworks. Each has its own expertise – and  traditionally an unspoken hierarchy – and weʼve been known to protect our  professional turf quite fiercely. The battlegrounds between curators and educators  are legendary. (Falk and Sheppard 2006: 112)

This last sentence takes me right to the heart of my subject. It is not always necessary or helpful to consider certain roles as being polar opposites. The ʻbattlegroundʼ referred to by Falk and Sheppard could be put to far more creative and productive use if it were to be seen as a cultural equivalent to the trading zone metaphor developed by Harvard Professor Peter Galison. (To whom I shall refer to later in this paper.)

Most often applied to scientific collaboration, the concept of trading zones describes the ʻopportunity for people to work together and create solutions for problems that couldnʼt even be conceived of or articulated in more traditional silo mentalities. Trading zones start with an assumption of difference, and intertwine process with product to create shared benefits and outcomes that can be spread widely.ʼ (Miller, Parker and Gillinson 2004: 38)

This trading zone metaphor will be considered in more depth later; it has played a critical role in the trajectory this research has taken. Similarly, examples of collaborative productivity drawn from other sectors and non museum sources (science, publishing and crowd sourcing literature in particular) have been critical informants.

This paper is not about what kind of information should be written on a label, style guidelines or reading ages. It is about the processes and methodologies that are currently in use within organisations in order to arrive at the text that makes it onto a label.

In the following section, I outline a brief history of research into the visitorʼs relationship with museum and gallery labels. I pose the question ʻis the subject specialist the best person to write the label?ʼ and explore the nature and changing meaning of expertise. I examine what the key issues are in relation to threats posed to the power base by working in more open and transparent ways.

Following on from this, a selection of case studies are presented to highlight the various responses to the thorny issue of improving interpretation across the sector. This information has been provided by colleagues working within a variety of contrasting museum and gallery environments, with different agendas and constraints governing the ways in which they have approached interpretative methodologies. Each is represented here as an example of good practice rather than best practice; no one methodology is ever going to be applicable across the sector and I do not wish to declare that we should all try to do our interpretation the way itʼs currently being done at Nottingham Contemporary! This is not a ʻhow toʼ handbook or a list of top ten tips. The case studies (from Glasgow Museums, The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Wolverhampton Art Gallery, Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Nottingham Contemporary, the British Museum and the New Art Gallery Walsall) are a mixture of Local Authority, National and University museums, some of which incorporated new interpretative models into a capital build/ rebuild and some who reconsidered their approach to interpretation out of resource related necessity.

These organisations have been selected for various reasons. I chose some because I knew that they had tried something new or different in their approach to interpretation. Others I had not come across before but were recommended. In addition to this, they represent examples of good practice in their approach. Lastly, they represent contrasting aspects of the sector and have been quite intentionally juxtaposed here. What has worked in a Local Authority setting may not (some would argue) work in a University Museum or a Contemporary Art Gallery. What these studies signify is that it is possible to move to new and more collaborative approaches to writing text regardless of constitutional constraints. Each study is comprised of an account of how the organisation approached interpretation, their use of external consultants, who led the process, how decisions were made, how dissent was overcome and what issues arose as the process evolved.

In the final section, I examine some of the key issues (which I refer to as collaborative traps) brought to the fore in the studies. These issues do not represent traps that the named organisations fell into (far from it). I believe them to represent some of the frequently used excuses for not attempting to work more openly and collaboratively. Implementing new ways of working takes time and is often an uneasy transition however it seems that some vital mind-set shifts are required if we are to move coherently in a lucrative interpretative direction. A key motivator for me here is asking myself the question ʻhow can we make the most of what we have?ʼ I think there is a lot of untapped knowledge in the museum and gallery part of the cultural sector and it is often overlooked because of the tendency that we have to prize very specific manifestations of knowledge and expertise (in society). This is worthy of being challenged in the 21st century.

In The Participatory Museum, Nina Simon points out that ʻusers voices can inform and invigorate project design and public facing programmesʼ (Simon 2010: ii). Simon goes on to say that participatory strategies donʼt replace but rather enhance, traditional institutions and that there are levels of public dissatisfaction because people feel that:

 “1/Cultural institutions are irrelevant to my life
 2/The Institution never changes
 3/The authoritative voice does not include my view or give me context for understanding what is being presented.
 4/This institution is not a creative place where I can express myself and contribute to history, science and art.
 5/This institution is not a comfortable social place for me to talk about ideas with  friends and strangers.” (Simon 2010: iii-iv)

Most of these points could well be opinions that are shared by members of staff within the organisation. What of their views about relevance, change, creativity and the authoritative voice? Are the outward facing messages that are transmitted via public information (leaflets, floor plans, signage and particularly the labels accompanying the exhibits) being informed and invigorated by the diverse voices within the walls?