By Rachel Nicholson, Director, Visitor Engagement and Research at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
We tried to systematically review and rewrite every label in our collection. Did we succeed? No. But we did succeed in something else; we managed to create a useful framework and common language in collaboration with our curatorial colleagues about what we want our labels (and interpretation broadly) to do for our visitors.
On paper, this project (which we started in the summer of 2020 in response to an increased call for museums to focus on racial equity), was about addressing problematic labels in permanent collection galleries. By problematic, we meant labels that used outdated language and/or did not address issues relevant to our audiences. With the rise of movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, conversations around sexual violence, racism, and colonization have become much more prevalent. As museums, we have an opportunity to engage with these conversations by addressing head-on how these issues are present in the works on display.
At first, we (the interpretation team composed of myself, Jocelyn Edens, and Ariana Chaivaranon) thought we could “simply” identify the labels we most wanted to replace. Quickly, however, we realized we needed buy-in from our colleagues to be successful. Can you imagine someone coming to you and telling you something was bad and needed to be replaced? Not a great starting point for a collaborative conversation. So almost from the start, our project “went off the rails.” Or, more generously, we were flexible enough to respond to new ideas. We pivoted and instead decided to take one step at a time. We knew what our goal was (identifying and replacing labels), but we allowed each point in the project to unfold organically.
We started with a meeting with colleagues from Curatorial and Community and Access departments and posed the question “What do we mean by harm?” The premise at the top of the agenda was simple: “We acknowledge that language can cause harm and we do not want to cause our visitors harm.” The discussion was anything but simple. Using break-out groups and guided discussion, we began to share what we each felt could “other” our visitors, make them feel uncomfortable, or make them feel ignored.
From there, having established some agreement about how language can cause harm, our curatorial colleagues identified labels they wanted to replace in their galleries. We wanted to maintain the collaborative, cross-disciplinary energy of the first meeting so instead of plunging into rewriting these labels, we created smaller workshops for specific labels. In each workshop, we used Google Docs to collaboratively edit an existing label. We started first by asking the group to mark up the label and identify harmful language and things they might change. From there, we shared what we each found problematic and then began to imagine how we might rewrite the label to better suit the object on display. For each workshop, two members of interpretation facilitated and took notes, and we paired up curatorial departments. For example, when workshopping a label from our Southeast Asian collection, the curator for that department could act as an expert about the object and our European curator could play the role of a curious, informed visitor. Halfway through the workshop, we swapped.
In working across collections, we saw how common issues came up again and again. This allowed us to identify not only common issues but build common principles and values that were expansive enough to apply across collections.
Two years later, we are still working our way through updating our labels, but now we have new Interpretive Principles and Values to guide this work (and any new labels we produce for our galleries.) Starting from the goal of reducing harm to visitors by removing harmful language, we built something new in the hope that our interpretation will be more inclusive, empathetic, and relevant. The values that guide our work are:
- Complexity. A label or panel does not need to offer a resolved story but can be an invitation to explore the object and ideas further. Complexity allows us to tell multiple stories and avoid oversimplification.
- Specificity. Deliberate and precise language gives visitors clearer and more memorable insights into the work of art and its context. We aim to focus on the object itself, always being sure to start our inquiry from the object, its details, and its stories before expanding to a broader narrative.
- Empathy. At each step we aim to be aware of how language can invite and empower. When we write, we keep in mind visitors, subjects, and makers, with special attention to those who have been historically disempowered or erased. Text has the power to do harm and it also has the power to create understanding, respect, and empathy for both people and objects.
- Relevance. We write with a commitment to 21st-century audiences–their ideas, values, and experiences.
- Experimentation. Just as there is no one type of visitor, there is no one type of label. In our process and our product, we aim to experiment and respond to the current moment and needs of our audiences, while crafting content that can hang in our galleries for 3-5 years.
While labels can be a can of worms and they open up all kinds of questions about content, design, and even production costs, I’d venture to say that all of the questions that come up when rethinking and replacing these texts are worthwhile. The conversations have pushed us to think about all the ways we might be inclusive, from the stories we tell, to the color of the paper we use. They’ve also helped us identify where text might fall short and how we might go beyond traditional forms of interpretation to tell even more complex, nuanced, and specific stories.
Hopefully, we’ll be able to report back soon about where that conversation takes us. For now, the first season of our podcast A Frame of Mind, led by my brilliant colleague Jocelyn Edens, hosted by Glenn North and produced by Christine Murray, is an example of this kind of experimentation in storytelling.