In today’s La Lettura supplement to the Italian daily Corriere della Sera I published a brief intervention, alongside Francesco Casetti and Christine Macel, on the subject of how art objects are (or aren’t) framed and flanked by wall labels. The English version of the text reads as follows:
Over the course of recent decades there has been a resurgence of philosophical interest in the forms of life that are compacted into physical objects: their affordances, functionality, and cycles of existence; the play of materials; the object as interface between the human and the non-human. In this object-oriented ontology or new materialism, the object is more than projection of a human intentionality, more than simply an obiectum: more than a thing “thrown” before us, an object to our subjectivity. Rather, it is a vibrant thing, endowed with a multisensoriality and intelligence that, even when withdrawn or unavailable, dialogues with our own.
However much they embody intelligence, objects do not tell their own stories. Even less so cultural objects, not to mention collections of cultural objects, whose crafting and assemblage is infused with human labor, knowledge, ambitions, and dreams. Such meanings may seem palpable or legible in the time and context in which a work or collection arises although this is hardly a given but quickly recede over the horizon as works age, the context shifts, and forgetfulness sets in. Naturally, the ageing process itself opens up new and alternate constellations of experience and significance.
The wall label first arose as an interface between artwork and audience as an extension of cataloguing practices. It transported back-of-house practices of inventorying and description into the front-of-house-experience of gallery and museum visitors without making any real concession to asymmetries in access and understanding. The naked record that resulted remains familiar to us today, consisting in the listing of creator, date, scale, medium, inventory number, and provenance. Hardly a generous cornucopia of illuminating or animating information, but a solid point of departure that situates an object in time and space.
One of the great triumphs in the democratization of museums as civic institutions has been the expansion of the humble wall label into a complex system of integrated framings, storytelling modes, and interpretative scaffolds through far more extensive wall texts and other medial supports. This is a system that has transformed exhibitions into some of the most powerful storytelling and experiential engines of our time, engines that animate their collections not just for insiders and experts but also for non-expert audiences. It has elevated the role of the curator and curatorial practice beyond mere dissemination, at its best aligning it with cutting-edge forms of scholarly and scientific knowledge. And it has prompted major museums to rethink not just exhibition experiences but also the presentation of their permanent collections, whether on display or, as is far more often the case, locked up in storage, particularly as the setting for interactions with collections expands beyond brick-and-mortar, physical galleries to open-access online databases and galleries.
I emphatically concur with Vincenzo Trione’s wall label decalogue not only for the above reasons but also because, in an online environment, audiences navigate and interact in ways that demand even thicker (rather than thinner) regimes of framing, description, and documentation. The naked wall label, however foundational, is little more than an initial signpost in a pathway that has the potential to extend inward and outward, in depth and in breadth, taking audiences on a journey both inside the object and beyond the object out into the network of relations to other objects that constitute its cultural context. Few are the institutions that have taken on this challenge with the sort of boldness or imagination that it invites. It’s something my lab at Harvard, the metaLAB, was already modeling in 2012 in its “Teaching with Things” project (https://vimeo.com/60721270). But the opportunity is there and promises an expanded understanding of the responsibility of wall labels, not a diminution of their role.
The separation of the on-site from the online is, of course, little more than a convenient fiction given the degree to which the two are ever more productively entangled in contemporary life. But the online contains a lesson for the onsite and that lesson is the following: that cultural objects come alive through expanded labeling, installation, and storytelling practices that vibrate with information no less than the vibrant matter of the objects themselves.
The Italian original appeared as follows: