Tombstones vs. Text Panels: Why don’t museums tell everything?
This is a perfectly fair problem/complaint. You’re completely right - sometimes museuns are scant with the information they place on their text panels. You’re talking about extended text panels, the kinds of labels that explain something in depth about the piece. What you’re running into that you don’t care for is casually called a tombstone, the bare bones information: title, date, artist, materials used, etc.
There are a few reaons for these. One: there are a few theories about how audience and object interact with each other (for folks who are fond of constructionist theory), but the more common reasons are: The piece has information being conveyed elsewhere, and/or visitors only spend an average of 7 seconds looking at the labels to begin with.
We have seven seconds.
So what that tells us is that the majority of people aren’t going to read beyond title, artist, date anyways. After having written the labels for an exhibition (extended labels with information, but still short and faily concise, on avg. about 60 words), I can tell you there’s a lot of work going into the labels that do have information. Draft after draft and pages of ideas, in my case an interview with the artist, and a fair amount of background research — all with the knowledge that many people wouldn’t bother to read what I wrote anyways. I took this as a challenge to not be boring, but you can’t be all things for all people.
The goal is certainly to try, however. And in the case of permanent collections in museums which do not have more than tombstone labels, it’s often because there’s a lot of opportuity for extended programming with the pieces. They’re part of the museum, they might rarely rotate, and they’ve usually been there for long enough that they already have extensive research on the pieces. Or they might someday have that research. Mr. Durston complained there was no information, but refused to pick up an audio guide, which is generally where that excessive information goes first. Nowadays, museums are utilizing audio guides, tours/docents, mobile apps for smart phones, QR codes, and pamphlets/fliers that have the extended information that you can pick up and sometimes take with you if you want to know even more.
I’m in complete agreement with you! I love extended labels, I want to read more about things, to be beguiled by the books which have even more information, to calmly contemplate what is being presented to me. But again, we are the odd ones out. Most people have about 7 seconds of attention per piece, if that, and then move on. We have a fair amount of opportunities to approach in different ways with all the same information — there’s an app for that now. We can create youtube videos and interactive computers, audio tours, in-person tours, etc. Some people are simply not visual/textual learners. To attract these people, we need alternatives.
Part of my problem with my museum studies course tackling this article is that 1.) Mr. Durston is complaining about things that are problems and all their solutions, and 2.) It’s clearly written to be divisive and riling, but to do little else. I’m sure he’s completely aware of the fact that he wouldn’t read every extended label, and I’m just as sure he realizes that his being interested in extensive amounts of information makes him a bit of an outlier, not the norm as my class suspects. In other words, no, I don’t think he’s ignorant, or someone who hates culture. I think he’s writing an article to make money and be controversial in his language while he does so.
He’s got a point — objects should relate to people, the relation of objects to objects and objects to civilizations can be illustrated to great effect, extended labels can be wonderful (or unread), context and connectivity can be extremely helpful, adults want alternatives to formal lecturing as activities, etc. This is the same point you have, that you want context and the story behind things. I think that’s a huge goal in any given museum. But the solution isn’t approached by simply writing more extended labels, it has to be much bigger than that, and yes, it even extends to the gift shop.
I think we’re fundamentally in agreement, I just think the explanations of “Why isn’t there more information?” is lacking and a fault of the museos for not explaining it.