You learnt in Part One that pestering visitors, intrusive staff members, and high prices are three of my exhibition pet peeves.
But these are trifling matters.
What really makes my blood boil in an exhibition?
My Top 5 Exhibition Pet Peeves
5. Other people
4. Overzealous staff
3. Elitism and price warfare
2. Label fail
The label is incorrect. The label has a spelling mistake. The label is too wordy, overly opinionated, patronising, or just really boring to read.
There are many things that can go wrong when creating an exhibition label. The label producer may not be aware of these problems, or may only become aware after the label has been printed and fixed to a wall. Any publisher, writer, illustrator, or student printing a lengthy assignment knows all too well the gut-wrenching feeling when one tiny error necessitates an entire reprint.
Should a factual error or spelling mistake be left as is, even though it may reflect badly on the exhibiting institution? Or should the label be reprinted? Another option is to add an amendment or note explaining the mishap. This could either be seen as honest and forthright, or unprofessional and a bit convoluted. (For more on this and other label dilemmas, I recommend Eugene Dillenburg’s illustrated discussion on ‘interesting labels’.)
No-one likes to be lectured at through an exhibition label, or told what to think and feel in response to a work. Visitors prefer to reach their own conclusions, especially in an art exhibition where works should be open to individual interpretation. This is why many art galleries adopt a minimalist approach to labels, providing only a basic citation.
Inability to sustain the visitor’s interest = label fail. I’m willing to take the time to read a well-written, informative label in a history exhibition. But if the label starts banging on about the minutiae of a World War I battle, interspersed with dates, descriptions of terrain and military jargon, I will bypass the label completely.
An effective label is relevant, concise, and provides an insightful background or footnote to the work.
A very effective label has a narrative quality. Because nobody will walk away from a good story.
(An invaluable resource for anyone who writes exhibition labels is Gallery Text at the V&A: A Ten Point Guide.)
My number one exhibition pet peeve of all time is …
1. The shop
Ah, the obligatory exhibition shop. Strategically placed at the end of the exhibition, or in close proximity to the exit door, the retail outlet banks on visitor exhaustion through the promise of instant gratification. After all the elusive ideas and abstract stimuli, finally: a tangible souvenir, compensating for a helpless void in which nothing concrete has been attained and there is no physical proof that the experience actually happened.
Exhibition consumables may or may not be directly linked to the exhibition.
For example, in a temporary outlet at the end of an Impressionist painting exhibition, you see a Monet postcard. All well and good.
But then the shop throws you a curve-ball. Also on sale: a DIY Andy Warhol pop art kit, a set of juggling balls, a harmonica on a key-chain, and a tube of eucalyptus-scented moisturiser.
Nobody needs these things. But you buy them to fill the void, convincing yourself that it’d be awesome to learn screen print portraiture, join the circus, become a travelling musician, and smell like a koala’s lunch.
But there is no real harm in taking home an exhibition memento (it is really only a pet peeve for my wallet). The objects may look like mere shelf-fodder, but memory and association imbue them with personal meaning. Exhibitions I’ve been to still linger, long after their closing date.
What are your exhibition pet peeves?