Words and Meaning: A Look at Exhibit Design

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A recent trip to the Worcester Art Museum (WAM) to inspect, among other items, a panel painting newly attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, revealed a curatorial trend of removing informational wall panels and captions. This captionless experiment was being played out in the museum’s Renaissance and Old Masters galleries.


“The Museum is working on alternative design approaches that encourage new ways for visitors to interact with and participate in daily uses of the gallery,” reads the WAM website. In Worcester’s Renaissance gallery, informative text has been replaced by interactive iPads and laminated guides stored in hanging bins around the room.


As a museum-goer accustomed to informative text, the absence was jarring--is the portrait on the wall a Vermeer or a Rembrandt? To answer that required firing up the communal electronic device or hoping the plastic info sheets weren’t missing. The experience brought up the question of whether or not informative captions distract from artistic enjoyment and contemplation.

                                                                                                                                    Captions have become something of a controversial topic in the museum world, for reasons ranging from misleading facts to funding concerns to pleasing everyone in an age of political correctness. In a 2015 ArtNews article, WAM director Matthias Waschek expressed great pleasure at removing “that damn piece of paper,” referring to wall labels, allowing works of art to speak for themselves. Yet for those without a degree in art history, properly constructed captions provide welcome nuance and context.


“I guess I’m old fashioned,” said Brazilian art historian, curator, and collector Pedro Corrêa do Lago recently when asked about his preference for informative captions. Corrêa do Lago has amassed over 100,000 autographs, manuscripts, and other handwritten items that span nearly a millennium and which are now subject of a new exhibition at the Morgan Library. The Magic of Handwriting: The Pedro Correa do Lago Collection showcases 140 jewels from his archives that bear the signatures and handwriting by a who’s who of the world’s creators, performers, and thinkers. (See Nick Basbanes’s forthcoming profile on Corrêa do Lago in the next issue of FB&C.)


Corrêa do Lago wanted viewers to enjoy the exhibition at hand while also understanding the rationale behind the inclusion of each piece. How then, to tie together material hailing from six distinct disciplines in the Morgan’s intimate Engelhard Gallery? To do this, he turned to Brazilian husband-and-wife team Daniela Thomas and Felipe Tassara, the duo responsible for designing the Rio 2016 Olympic Opening Ceremony. At the Morgan, Thomas and Tassara organized the items like rows of cream-white Greek stele; each autograph sheet is raised at an angle, as if on a writing desk, protected only by a thin film of plexiglass, while large-font informative text greets the viewer at eye level. The result is a wholly immersive and informative experience.


“The text is critical,” explained Thomas. “It explains why Pedro selected these specific pieces, and how the power of handwriting can connect us to great people.”

  

Unaccompanied by captions, however, a letter bearing the thumbprint signature of physicist Stephen Hawking or other slips of paper become no more than marks on a page.

  

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Images: (Top) Entry to Morgan Exhibit. (Bottom) A row of autographed pages. Credit: Barbara Basbanes Richter 

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