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«Policy and Practice Interpretation at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Policy and Practice The Interdivisional Committee On Interpretation THE ...»

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Visitors to museums are faced with a barrage of new information. They must orient themselves within the building, select among a wide choice of exhibits, and read the accompanying didactic information. Much of this information is unfamiliar, so visitors do not know what is important for them to read (artist's name, label text) and what is not (accession number, credit line). When too much unfamiliar information is encountered in too short a time, a bottleneck forms between STM and LTM. The pace at which most visitors move through the museum does not allow adequate rehearsal time for information to be processed into LTM. Since the entry of information into LTM is slow, information backs up in STM, where it decays and is lost after 3 to 20 seconds.

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Structuring Information The ideal label builds on visitors’ previous knowledge and answers their most pressing questions about the object. In broader terms, labels sharpen visitors’ observational skills and help them make connections between a work of art and its context. The writer’s challenge is to determine what information is likely to interest viewers. The label writer may address various aspects of the work of art. However, all aspects cannot be discussed effectively in a single label. Because large amounts of unfamiliar information are impossible to process, labels should be short and contain only one main idea.

The nature of the object and the context in which it is shown will determine the label’s emphasis. Where possible, labels should help visitors make connections among related works.

Recent surveys at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts indicate that visitors' most pressing questions are likely to be about Subject (imagery, iconography, referents) • Content (iconology, allegory, symbolism) • Function (practical, symbolic, changes over time) • Cultural and historical context • Why the object is considered art and why it is in the museum • Artist (own commentaries on work, own philosophy, pertinent biographical • information) Technique (how produced) • Economics (patronage, consumption) • The same surveys indicate that visitors are less interested in Unsubstantiated assertions of aesthetic quality, comparative judgments, • connoisseurship Stylistic development • Discussions of art theories • Lengthy artists' biographies • Provenance (list of owners) • Writing to Encourage Looking Aesthetic experiences usually have one or more of four aspects.8 Perceptual (looking) Emotional (feeling) Intellectual (thinking) Communicative (the integration of the other three) Typically, general visitors have only emotional responses to works of art. By taking emotional responses into account, writers can make labels more effective. When visitors believe that their feelings about an object have been validated, they are more willing to look at and think about art in new ways.9 To help general visitors expand their aesthetic experiences, written information should foster a sense of discovery and provide guidance in looking at works of art.10 Of course we cannot know the background of every visitor, so writers must determine what should be included in labels to benefit the greatest number of visitors.

Good Writers First determine The audience to be reached The concept to be conveyed The facts to be communicated Then create content that Assumes little knowledge of the topic Relates to common human experience Guides looking Answers visitors' most pressing questions Places the object in a cultural context Refers to the object frequently Repeats or rephrases key names, words, or ideas And write using Active voice Short paragraphs (about 50 words) Short sentences (15 to 25 words) Short words (four syllables or fewer) Few subordinate clauses Evocative language Figurative language (metaphors and similes) Example of an Effective Label For general visitors, the most compelling feature of this painting is its symbolism.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin French, 1699-1779 The Attributes of the Arts and the Rewards Which Are Accorded Them, 1766 Oil on canvas The William Hood Dunwoody Fund 52.15 This picture may appear to reproduce the casual clutter of an 18th-century tabletop. Not so: Chardin carefully selected objects to convey specific meanings.

A palette with brushes, placed atop a paint box, symbolizes the art of painting. Building plans, spread beneath drafting and surveying tools, represent architecture. An ornate bronze pitcher alludes to goldsmithing, and the red portfolio symbolizes drawing. The plaster model of J. B. Pigalle’s Mercury, an actual work by a friend of Chardin’s, stands for sculpture.

The cross on a ribbon is the Order of St. Michael, the highest honor an artist could then receive. Pigalle was the first sculptor to win it. So this painting sends multiple messages: it presents emblems of the arts and of artists’ glory and honors a specific artist, Pigalle.

A still life (or painting of objects), which is composed from scratch by its creator, can be used to convey complex meanings.

150 words Example of an Ineffective Label This label fails to address general visitors, for whom the most compelling issue is the painting’s symbolism. However, this in-depth, specialized information would be appropriate in a different format, such as an audio program.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin French,1699-1779 The Attributes of the Arts and the Rewards Which Are Accorded Them, 1766 Oil on canvas The William Hood Dunwoody Fund 52.15 J. B. S. Chardin, born in Paris, had his first art instruction from his father, a master cabinetmaker. In 1713, he began his academic training, and achieved his first recognition in 1726. He was elected a member of the Académie Royale in 1728 and thereafter exhibited at the Paris Salons. He specialized in still life and genre and was championed by the encyclopedist Diderot.

There are several extant versions of this subject, which features a plaster model of Pigalle’s famous work. The Hermitage painting is closely related to Minneapolis’s and has a provenance reaching back to Catherine II. It may well be the original Salon of 1769 work, though both pictures are signed and dated 1766. Neither should be confused with the Moscow canvas entitled Attributs des arts avec une tête de Mercure en plâtre, which shows a bust of Mercury, since this is not Pigalle’s Mercury but, instead, a cast of a famous antique portrayal of the messenger of the gods.

Recent studies suggest that Minneapolis’s painting may in fact be a replica Chardin executed as a gift for Pigalle himself.

182 words More Examples of Effective Labels This label focuses on the cultural context of an Asian object.

Chinese Bowl, 18th century Nephrite The John R. Van Derlip Fund and gift of the Thomas Barlow Walker Foundation 92.103.12 The form of this modest bowl is based on a kuei, a type of bronze ceremonial food vessel used in ancient China. It had great appeal for 18th-century scholars, who were deeply interested in studying antiquity and collecting old objects. Probably used as a water container for a writing table, the bowl was meant to signify its owner’s awareness of China’s past.

The subtle color, called “mutton fat” in Chinese, was highly esteemed by scholars, who preferred it to the brilliant green and white hues of jadeite.* 88 words *Nephrite and jadeite are defined in a group label.

This label focuses on the iconography of a decorative arts object.

Attributed to the Methyse Painter Greek (Attic) Volute krater, 455-450 b.c.

Slip-glazed earthenware Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Donald C. Dayton 83.80 The scenes.depicted on ancient Greek vessels often relate to the vessels' functions. This volute krater was used for mixing wine and water, so the scenes painted on it relate to Dionysos, the Greek god of wine and merrymaking.

On one side, Dionysos dances between several goatlike creatures (satyrs) and female worshipers (maenads) in a ritual procession. The large wine cup Dionysos carries is a common attribute of this festive god. The revelry continues on the other side of the krater, where two lively satyrs pursue a maenad.

88 words This label focuses on the function of an African object.

Zaire, Kongo people Nail figure (nkisi- nkondi), 20th century Wood fibers, nails The Christina N. and Swan J. Turnblad Memorial Fund 71.3 Kongo people traditionally used nkisi nkondi figures to settle legal disputes, seal agreements, and heal the sick. The powerful spirit residing in an nkisi figure could be called upon by the religious specialist, usually a prominent man, who was responsible for the spiritual and physical well-being of his village.

When necessary, the figure was brought outside in public view and its spirit activated by driving in blades or nails. The materials, facial expression, and pose of nkisi figures convey their strength and power, and each blade or nail represents an oath, an agreement, or an episode in village history. Only a few Kongo villages still follow this practice today.

110 words This label focuses on the technique of a western painting.

Gerrit Dou Dutch, 1613-75 A Hermit Praying, 1670 Oil on panel The William Hood Dunwoody Fund 87.11 Dou developed a style of painting noted for an almost microscopic rendering of detail.

Known as “fine painting,” his technique was widely imitated in Holland, but his own skill remained unsurpassed. Dou’s reputation was so great that clients paid enormous sums for his pictures.

Dou used a variety of small brushes and worked with magnifying glasses to paint details with extraordinary exactitude. In A Hermit Praying he showed individual hairs in the hermit’s beard and every wrinkle on his face. He even represented dirt under the hermit’s fingernails.

Dou used light for supernatural effect in his religious and moralizing subjects. The strong light on the hermit’s head and the Holy Scriptures suggests that salvation can be sought through pious devotion. The shaded areas enveloping the hermit contain many symbols of earthly decay that contrast with the intense illumination of divine truth.

141 words This label focuses on the significance of a textile.

Egyptian (Coptic) Hanging with a Latin cross, 5th-7th century Linen and wool Gift of the Aimee Mott Butler Charitable Trust, Mr. and Mrs. John F. Donovan, the estate of Margaret D. Hawks, and Eleanor Weld Reid 83.126 This textile was made by Copts (Egyptian Christians). Few major Coptic textiles have survived to our time, and those that still exist seldom contain Christian images. This hanging, however, contains many Christian symbols. The cross refers to Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. The wreath is a Greco-Roman emblem of victory; combined with the cross, it symbolizes Christ’s triumph over death. The fruit and flowers surrounding the cross signify the renewed life that Christians expect in heaven.

The design of the cross is also rare. When crosses appear in Coptic textiles, usually all four arms are the same length (a Greek cross). Only a few Coptic textiles show the Latin cross, with three short arms and one long one.

117 words This label focuses on a photographer's vision.

This label focuses on a photographer's vision.

Dorothea Lange American, 1895-1965 Migrant Mother, 1936 Gelatin silver print Alfred and Ingrid Lenz Harrison Fund 92.136 Dorothea Lange made this photograph in February 1936 while employed by the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. She labeled it as


Migrant agricultural worker’s family. Seven hungry children. Mother age 32. Father is native Californian. Destitute in pea-pickers’ camp Nipomo, California, because of the failure of the early pea crop.

These people had just sold their tires in order to buy food. Of the 25oo people in the camp most of them were destitute.

The photograph accomplished the goal of the agency’s documentary photography program at the time, which was to promote action on behalf of the poor. The agency’s position was that such poverty was a temporary aberration that action, compassion, and Democratic policies, such as the New Deal, would correct.

126 words This label focuses on the expressive use of medium in a print.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner German, 1880-1938 Portrait of Ludwig Schames, 1918 Woodcut The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund, 1965 p.13,425 The subject of this print is the artist’s dealer, Ludwig Schames (1852-1922), who had established a gallery in Frankfurt in 1895. Four major exhibitions of Kirchner’s paintings, sculptures, drawings, watercolors and prints, organized by Schames between 1916 and l922, secured Kirchner’s reputation in Germany and worldwide.

Woodcut is a relief process in which the artist draws the design on a wooden block. Areas meant to remain white are carved away with a knife and gouge, leaving the lines to be printed standing in relief. The block is inked, paper is placed upon it, and then it is run through a printing press.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Kirchner and his fellow German Expressionists exploited the directness of this medium. Kirchner’s dynamic white lines and brooding passages of black tone evoke the sensitive personality of Schames, who could appreciate Kirchner’s “bohemian” temperament and foster his genius.

148 words This label explains how a piece of furniture was made.

John Scott Bradstreet American, 1845-1914 Table, about l906 Cypress wood Gift of Wheaton Wood 82.43.11 This table was made in John Bradstreet’s Minneapolis Craftshouse, which opened in 1904.

There Bradstreet sold furniture of his own design and also imported items, especially objects from Japan, which were his particular passion.

The technique used here is Bradstreet’s adaptation of jin-di-sugi, a Japanese wood treatment for artificially aging cypress. Bradstreet’s method called for first charring the wood to remove the soft outer fibers and then scrubbing the inner layers with a brush to reveal the grain. The treated wood was carved, often with motifs from Japanese art, such as the lotus leaf seen here. Then it was stained either brown or green, and the carving was often highlighted with paint or gold leaf.

117 words This label challenges visitors to look beyond the obvious.

Chuck Close American, born 1940 Frank, 1969 Acrylic on canvas The John R. Van Derlip Fund 69.137 Chuck Close first takes a photograph of his subject. Copying the small image meticulously in paint onto a very large canvas, he retains the cool, objective feel of photography.

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