How info-lite museum labels deprive us all

• The quality of the Herbert’s holdings made me want to know more about several pieces, but the labels failed to deliver. To use some dumbed-down labelling myself, #epicfail.

Tim Threlfall, “Sisters and Brothers” (1963), plus its label

I was about to discuss a few sculptures in Coventry’s fine Herbert Museum & Art Gallery, notably the above “Sisters and Brothers” (1963) by Tim Threlfall (1940-1999), when I became so enraged by their uninformative labels that I offer this rant instead. I’m not having a go at the Herbert in particular, as dumbed-down captions are an irritant at many museums and galleries. And I have no quibble with explanatory labels per se, or a simple paragraph to engage children. But why is it considered OK to cater for under-tens and the verbally-challenged (who won’t read them anyway), while ignoring intelligent, curious adults, who are far greater in number? This particular label looks rather impressive at first sight – nicely designed and clearly written, with much care obviously taken. An easy read for kids and the casual visitor, as presumably intended. But if you love art and want to approach the work seriously – as I did in this instance, and as a museum should provide for – the lack of rigour behind it seems to me not just wrongheaded and patronising, but actively depriving viewers of information that they have a right to know. So, allowing this hapless little card to stand as an exemplar for many other offenders, I quote in full:

“This piece is an example of a jagged style of sculpture from after the second world war, known as the Geometry of Fear. It powerfully evokes the radar dishes of the Cold War. This piece is welded together from slabs of iron and shows Tim Threlfall’s feeling for solid material. It is influenced by the work of Threlfall’s idol, the sculptor Eduardo Chillida. What does this sculpture remind you of? We think it looks like a monster form Dr Who!” 

Even by its own reductionist standards, the label doesn’t address the obvious question most viewers will ask: why is this abstract sculpture titled “Sisters and Brothers”? Sure, it looks a bit like a radar antenna, but it also – as the caption doesn’t observe – resembles enshrouding, protective wings. I learned from a Herbert educational PDF that the work was a gift from Threlfall to his mother, who returned it in her will, whereupon he kept it until his death. This was unusual, as he sold most of his other works, suggesting this one was particularly important to him. Point out these simple facts and the ostensibly “cold war” sculpture gains an emotional narrative of family and loss which would enhance anyone’s appreciation of it, but nowhere are they mentioned. And even on a prosaic level, we are given information-lite:  I cannot be the only viewer would find it helpful to know the dimensions of the piece, and when and how it was acquired. The gallery already has access to these particulars, so it is no hardship to include them in very small type. But apart from noting gifts and loans, they don’t – maybe it’s thought to look too scarily intellectual.

This basic curatorial recording and explication is what museums are supposed to do. Surely at least half the Herbert’s visitors would like more context about the artists: what were they aiming at, is it typical of their oeuvre, how did their career pan out – and if it’s a local artist, where else to see their work in the area. There’s virtually nothing about Threlfall on the internet, so the Herbert can’t deploy the “use Google” defence – and anyway, we need solid and informative public museums precisely to protect us from the ephemeral caprice of privately-owned electronic data. Yet in this label’s 80-odd words of primary-level prose, biographical facts are totally omitted, while Eduardo Chillida, who the presumed-dimwit readers will never have heard of, is namechecked with no explanation at all. Quite apart from some facts about Threlfall, the caption needs to expand briefly on what the Geometry of Fear was about (the educational leaflet I found noted that it was inspired by cubist forms), and a qualifying clause on Chillida including his nationality, time period and what his works looked like. This is elementary stuff that even a newspaper aiming at a general audience would do. A satisfying explanation needn’t be long; just one or two pithier paragraphs – 150 words, say – of smaller type below an initial large simplistic one, if that is still deemed necessary.

Instead, here over half the label’s space is devoted to a patronising comparison with Dr Who. “What does this sculpture remind you of? We think it looks like a monster from Dr Who!” This is a lazy pseudo-question, the kind of low-aspiration educational thinking that artificially limits childrens’ horizons. I’m no expert, and doubtless a teacher could come up with a better example, but more open-ended and creative enquiries to stretch young minds might be, do you think this looks scary or friendly? How would you feel about it if it was a different size, or shiny like a mirror? Where in Coventry would you put a giant one? Just the same questions that would get an adult mind thinking, in other words: notions that require imaginative discussion of inner feelings and the outside world, rather than than a non-relevant diversion into chat about TV shows and aliens. (If the captioner was aware of the more sophisticated parallel, that Dr Who also originates from 1963 so is a product of the same cold war unease as the sculpture, there is no hint of it here.)

Writing concise yet informative art captions that satisfy all educational levels while patronising none takes time and research and editing skill, but I thought that was the job description of a caption author. It may well be that there are hordes of talented Herbert staff chomping at the bit to write just such labels, but the powers-that-be demand this half-baked semi-information due to policy and dogma. Whatever the reason for their miserliness with the available info, the Herbert Gallery’s caption commissars should brain-up their description policy. By serving only the meagre scraps of fact they assume Coventry’s humble folk can digest, they are depriving the public who pay their wages of knowledge. It’s commendable that they provide explanations at all, but since they’re putting effort into it, they should do it properly. Their high quality holdings are currently let down by the labels’ shallow jottings, and any visitor who hopes to learn more about an artist or artwork that inspires them will walk away dissatisfied. To use some dumbed-down labelling myself, #epicfail.

Yes, it's a concise and well-curated selection of high quality items. So label them properly!

6 comments

  1. marijke de hilster

    it’s remarkeble to read that tim threlfall was influenced by chillida.
    for a very long time it was gonzales.

  2. Bill Goodall

    Tim was my tutor at Loughborough College of Art in the 60’s. he had been an assistant to Henry Moore and was very much a traditionalist, working with solid sheets of steel, usually on a small scale. Very much a thinker and critic, he moved to Stoke and Coventry Colleges before I lost track of him. I was sad to hear he died in 1999. He would have been mortified at the simplistic explanation of a very personal work.

    • Vici MacDonald

      Thanks for adding some first-hand memories. Perhaps one day they’ll de-dumb the labels.

  3. Equally annoying are labels which draw attention to the curator, and his / her knowledge of post-desconstruction criticism. This kind of interpretive text should be relegated to the catalogue.

    And can we please start a ban on audio guides? I was in the Musee des Beaux Arts in Brussels recently, and had to leave one of the galleries because the girl next to me had her audioguide turned up to eleven, and I could hear every word of the commentary.

    • Vici MacDonald

      They should have special “non-audio-guide” days like they have “quiet carriages” in trains (not that anyone takes any notice of those). It drives me crazy the way people congregate in front of anything with a number and aren’t even looking at the work, just waiting for the blurb to finish.

  4. I agree with you! I’ve felt the same way often; some museums are worse offenders than others. For instance, the Kleinburg museum in Ontario, Canada is a good example of how bad this practice can get!

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