My Top 5 Exhibition Pet Peeves (Part Two)

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.)


Drum roll

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.

Non-vital objects accumulated from exhibition shops.

Non-vital objects that I’ve purchased from exhibition shops.

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?


My Top 5 Exhibition Pet Peeves (Part One)

I have a bone to pick with you, exhibition. Yes I’m talking to you: dark lighting, white paint, sculpture on pedestal, flash of tourist’s camera, pretentious tour guide, old bones, new media, crying baby, form a queue please, and “It costs $25 to get in?”

I love you, but you are by no means perfect. You should be ashamed of yourself.

These are the top five things I hate about you.

5. Other people

Hell is other exhibition visitors.

It would be great to have an exhibition to myself for once; to flit from object to object without risk of an elbow to the face, or having my vision obscured because the tallest man in Australia has also decided to visit the Biennale today.

There are four sub-types of annoying exhibition visitor.

The Elbow Fiend

A serial exhibition pest. The Elbow Fiend’s constant elbow-raising shows a minimal awareness of bodily proximity and lack of respect for interpersonal boundaries. 

The Loud, Opinionated ‘Expert’

Always has an opinion deemed worthy enough to force upon other gallery participants. Highly aware of the small room’s capacity for aural reverberation and uses it to their advantage. 

The Delinquent Child

I’m all for children interacting with exhibitions, and would be the first to argue the importance of cultural institutions for child development. But an exhibition experience can be completely ruined by The Delinquent Child, especially one that insists on pirouetting over security barriers while screaming (though check first as the screams may actually be part of a contemporary art installation, which therefore makes them acceptable).

The Frontal Impediment

The equivalent of being cut off while driving, or climbing a mountain only to have your view obscured by fog. The Frontal Impediment is a visitor who swoops, out of nowhere, into that tiny space between you and the exhibit.

Next time, come prepared for these sub-types: earplugs, hula hoop around your waist to define your boundaries, protective elbow pads for retaliation against The Elbow Fiend. You may think you look ridiculous, but in the art world you will appear hip and avant-garde.

4. Overzealous staff

To guarantee an enjoyable exhibition experience, overzealous staff members must be eradicated.

Not all staff members though. Museum workers and volunteers are often angels who enrich the visitor experience, whether it is through education, guiding, curation, or pointing out when you’re walking the wrong way. When I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, an extremely helpful staff member advised me that I wasn’t supposed to walk through a century-old revolving door in the middle of the museum: “It’s an exhibit dear, not an exit”.

An overzealous staff member will always pounce if you

  • bump the security rope, or marginally overstep the line;
  • wear your backpack on your back;
  • accidently use your camera flash;
  • have a sneaky sip of water to prevent dehydration;
  • exist.
Younger me, getting too close to an exhibit.

Younger me, getting too close to an exhibit while wearing a backpack ON MY BACK. How rebellious.

If an overzealous staff member has a point to make, they will make it. Like a draconian school principal hell-bent on pedagogic domination, they will find a grievance and object to it. My boyfriend made the mistake of visiting an exhibition while wearing a 1970s camera around his neck. He had no intention of taking photographs inside the gallery, but each time he touched the camera ever so slightly, a security guard jumped in and reprimanded him.

3. Elitism and price warfare

Art, heritage and cultural engagement should be open and accessible to all. So why pay $25AUD and up to visit an exhibition? If I wanted entertainment combined with a Delinquent Child ruining my day I’d go to the cinema instead, which has also seen price rises, but not as high as some exhibitions I’ve been to. Events, talks and symposiums add additional costs, at times making them accessible only to elites. Increasingly, visitors are asked to book tickets to blockbuster exhibitions through ticketing agencies, which charge inflated fees on top of the exhibition price.

But many organisations have addressed this issue. Some museums and galleries maintain a free entry policy, digital initiatives and travelling exhibitions increase accessibility without additional cost to the visitor, and child, student and pensioner discounts are commonplace.


Stay tuned for my top 2 exhibition pet peeves …

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you have an opinion on exhibition pricing? What are your exhibition pet peeves? Have any museum or gallery experiences particularly enraged you?

Maybe you have come across one of the four sub-types. Or are you one of them? If you’re a Loud, Opinionated ‘Expert’, now is the chance to defend yourself while sharing your loud, opinionated expertise!