Interpretation in museums and galleries can often be a matter of taste: some visitors prefer to have an unmediated experience between themselves and the artworks, and others expect and appreciate information in a variety of formats. Much has been written on the perceived opposition of ‘experience’ versus ‘interpretation’, but if handled sensitively the two should be united like a happy marriage.
There are books and websites where one can read a great deal about an artist or object, but nothing can replace the immediacy of standing before an artwork and looking (or using the other senses, if appropriate). Interpretation should never tell us what to see, think, or feel, but instead provide the background or contextual facts that enable the viewer to come to their own conclusion about what they are seeing or experiencing.
Interpretation at Pallant House Gallery
At Pallant House Gallery we have taken the approach of providing layers of written interpretation: maps, wall-texts, short labels and long-labels. These are complemented by a variety of relatively low-technology interpretation including themed tours for adults and school groups, children’s activity trails and worksheets, artwork in focus talks, workshops and lectures on artists, and themes in the collections and exhibitions – and occasionally special audio-tours.
All visitors are given a map at the reception to help them navigate the architectural mix of an eighteenth-century Queen Anne townhouse with domestically-scaled rooms and the larger contemporary extension alongside that opened in 2006. Although the two buildings are different in character (the townhouse has panelled rooms and the other ‘white cube’ spaces), ultimately the approach to interpretation is the same throughout so that the visitor’s experience feels as seamless as the transition between the two buildings.
The permanent collection displays of twentieth-century British and international modern art are organised broadly chronologically, exploring different themes in each room, but with contemporary interventions into architectural features such as the carved staircase and fireplaces so that it offers more than a ‘heritage house experience’.
Within each room display there is an introductory wall text of about 200 words in a large font, which explains the theme of the display, and its historic or artistic context. Even if the visitor does not read any other interpretation, in theory this text should help them understand the connecting theme or idea behind the artworks on display in that room.
Answering Who? Where? What? Why? How?
With such a rich mix of historic, modern and contemporary elements there are all kinds of narratives that could be explored, but the starting point is to try to answer the kind of questions visitors might ask on going to a museum, gallery or heritage experience: the questions of Who? Where? What? Why? How?
The first text the visitor encounters outside Room1 gives an overview of the ‘collection of collections’ and how it was formed: the generosity of private collectors that have donated their works. The next explains the history of the eighteenth-century house and the extraordinary story of the man who built it; subsequent wall texts relate to the theme of the different room displays. For example, at the moment these include room displays devoted to Walter Sickert, Surrealist art, early twentieth-century landscape and still-life paintings, post-war abstract art, and figurative paintings ranging from David Bomberg to Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.
All the artworks in the permanent collection are accompanied by short labels that clearly set out standard basic information: the artist’s name and life dates, the title and creation date of the artwork, the medium and the credit line for the donor or acquisition method. The labels are presented relatively close to the artwork to avoid confusion about which label relates to which artwork, and so both can be seen at the same time. From personal experience, searching for labels that are displayed several metres from an artwork can have the effect of frustrating and annoying visitors, rather than improving the quality of their experience.
All the labels and wall-texts within Pallant House Gallery are designed by our in-house graphic designer, and use a font called Foundry Sterling, which was chosen for its clarity and readability. It is a modern sans serif created by David Quay Design in 2001 with letterforms designed with special attention to proportion and purity of form, and it has been noted for its elegance and ‘quintessentially English feel’ which seems appropriate for a Modern British art gallery.
During our re-development project in 2003-2006 we created an Access Advisory Group. This group includes participants that are wheelchair users and have visual impairments, and provides feedback on everything from the design of the disabled toilets to the font sizes of labels and the height at which they are displayed – to enable both wheelchair users and the average height visitor to comfortably read the labelling. The labels are printed on low-reflective laminate foam card, and fixed either directly to the walls, or onto special Plexiglas holders in the panelled rooms of the eighteenth-century townhouse. The idea behind this is that they can be re-used when artworks are moved to different contexts, depending on the appropriateness of the text. In temporary exhibitions in the new wing galleries we tend to use decal lettering and vinyl wall-texts applied directly onto the walls.
Some items such as pieces of historic furniture do not have individual labels on the basis that to label every chair would be intrusive to the experience of a ‘domestic’ space and unnecessary, when information can be obtained from the voluntary room stewards around the gallery who are equipped with files with more detailed information on such items.
However, a considerable proportion of artworks also have additional labels with longer texts of up to about 80 words to provide more contextual information about the artwork. Our aim with the long labels is that anyone from the age of 12 upwards should be able to read and understand the language used in the label.
With younger visitors we employ different ways of engaging their attention: such as children’s activity trails, or creative tours and workshops for school groups.
It is important not to patronise the reader, or to tell them what to think about the artwork, but rather to provide facts and contexts that enable the viewer come to their own conclusion or opinions. With displays of modern and contemporary art it is particularly important to provide ‘a way in’ to avoid visitors feeling alienated by artworks that they do not immediately understand, which can be made worse by impenetrable texts using ‘jargon’.
The texts are usually written by myself or our Curatorial Assistant, Katy Norris, but we have also worked with others to provide different voices in the gallery displays. In 2009 we launched the Step Up project with funding from Renaissance and Surrey, East and West Sussex Museums Development Service to enable five non-traditional artists to work with a researcher and gallery staff to develop four-workshop packs, a trail of labels and to deliver workshops during the award-winning Outside In exhibition, featuring work by artists on the margins. In 2010 and 2011 this continued with 15 non-traditional artists receiving training in leading workshops and developing an audio-trail.
Good interpretation is a key part of helping visitors to engage with modern and contemporary art, to help them understand the often complex ideas behind it, and hopefully to make them want to learn more. Generally at Pallant House Gallery we receive very positive feedback about our interpretation and labelling, so I hope that it is achieving these outcomes.