Improving Our Museum Labels Through A Harm Reduction Lens: Part 3

By: Rachel Nicholson, Jocelyn Edens, and Ariana Chaivaranon

In our workshops with curatorial colleagues (which we wrote about in the last post), we continually heard certain ideas rise to the surface about shared principles for interpretive text at the Nelson-Atkins. These included:

  • Complexity: a label can be an invitation to explore the object and ideas further and does not need to offer a resolved story.
  • Specificity regarding the object and language.
  • Empathy especially for visitors, subjects, and makers who have been disempowered.
  • Making deliberate choices to share the most interesting and relevant stories of an object.
  • Thinking holistically about the experience of visiting a gallery and of visiting the museum.

Working off of these initial ideas, we as an Interpretation Team decided to divide and conquer, each taking on a different collection area and working with Curators to reimagine the labels they had identified. Each of us used “story jams” to explore new ideas for these objects. This model was shared with us by Antenna, an audio and multimedia production company with whom we work.

A screenshot of a PowerPoint Slide with a blue band at the left and a white background. Black text on a white background to the right outlines the story jam questions.
For story jams, we used the above questions to guide conversations, asking people to make observations first as a visitor or someone seeing the object for the first time, and then as an expert.

In each story jam, of which there were 3-4 for each collection area, we gathered colleagues and volunteers across the institution with different areas of expertise and experiences with art including visitor services officers, access staff, and membership and social media specialists.  Working collaboratively, we identified the most interesting and pressing stories that each object could tell. While our overall approaches were similar, there were also some differences since we worked with different colleagues and collections. Therefore, for this post, we’ll each share a bit about our process and our learnings.

Jocelyn Edens, Interpretive Planner, worked with objects in our Chinese Art collection, focusing in one case on how to tell complex stories about objects that may have been reconstructed and are therefore not “original.” Ariana Chaivaranon, Interpretive Planner, focused on our South and Southeast Asian Art collections, confronting questions of how to help visitors understand how an object’s context can change its reception. Lastly, Rachel Nicholson worked with objects in the European Art collection, tackling questions of violent subject matter and how to acknowledge 21st century experiences and understanding of topics such as sexual assault in the context of 17th century paintings.

Adding Complexity to our Chinese Art Collection

In one story jam for objects in the Chinese collection, we spent a lot of time discussing a limestone relief carving made in the Northern Wei Dynasty, around 522 C.E. Our curator identified the label for this object as needing a re-write for a few reasons: 1) it was physically worn and dirty, 2) it privileged stories about men that aren’t even visible rather than focusing on the women in the object, and 3) it was a slog for visitors to read at 346 words long (we aim for 70-90 words for object labels). Crucially, new research showed that a large portion of the panel had been reconstructed in the 1930s, so writing a new label would give us an opportunity to be transparent with visitors about the object’s the life.

Offering Procession of the Empress as Donor with Her Court, Chinese, about 522 C.E. Fine, dark-gray limestone; 80 inches x 9 feet 1 ½ inches. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust. 40-38

In discussion, we first raised questions about the object based on looking. Most of these questions focused on decoding the composition, the original context of the object, and its materials and techniques. When our curator introduced the story of its reconstruction, new questions and observations emerged: are objects in other museums from the same site in the same condition? Who were the artists who helped create this reconstruction? What can we glean about their mastery and skill, alongside that of the original carvers? What other objects in our collection can tell stories about copies and reconstructions?

As we develop a new label that incorporates this story and leans into complexity—that is, offers unresolved stories that invite more questions and further exploration—our big question is how it will affect the way visitors make meaning from this object, as well as others near it in the gallery. Will visitors feel empowered to ask new questions and explore these objects in all their complexity? Will they feel deceived or tricked or disappointed?

Specificity in the South and Southeast Asian Art Collection

The story jam participants for the South and Southeast Asian collection tackled some of the core tensions of the display of Hindu processional sculptures in U.S. encyclopedic art museums. An early 1200s sculpture of Shiva Nataraja is the centerpiece of one of the fictive “temple rooms” original to our 1932 building. Although non-Hindus often mistake the room for a temple reconstruction, the object display is far removed from its original religious context. Barring the opportunity for reinstallation, we set out to support both Hindu and non-Hindu visitors’ experiences through the label.

A photo of a dark gray, bronze statue against a gray background. The god Shiva raises his right leg and extends his four arms in a dance.
Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, Indian, early 13th century. Bronze; 34 ¼ x 27 ½ x 13 inches. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 34-7.

At first, story jam participants without a knowledge of Hinduism commented on the sculpture’s perfectly cast and precisely proportioned bronze body. Their interests shifted when Hindu story jam participants or those familiar with Hindu practices noted that to them, Shiva appeared undressed in the museum. In its original home in a South Indian temple, the sculpture would have been adorned daily with oils, cloth, and flowers. Our revised label invites visitors to reflect on the differing practices of seeing the sculpture in the museum context, in a temple, and in a religious festival procession.

The revised label also prompts visitors to consider the embodied experience of aspects of Hindu worship, such as dance, moving around the object, and darshan (mutual seeing between a worshiper and a sacred image). We replaced unspecific, harmful language that incorrectly described Apasmarapurusha, the figure crushed by Shiva’s dancing feet, as a “dwarf,” invited directed looking, and used non-ableist verbs to encourage visitors to “circle” the sculpture, taking it in from all angles. Ultimately, we hope to inspire visitors to reflect on their personal, spiritual, and bodily relationships to this sculpture of Shiva today.

Thinking Holistically about our European Art Collection

Our European art curators identified about 30 labels to be replaced. Rather than workshopping all of them, we broke them down into themes and chose objects that embodied each big idea. These themes included: violent subject matter, unacknowledged power dynamics, and harmful tropes.

For one specific label, we tackled a subject common in many European art collections: Europa and the Bull. In this story from the ancient Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphosis, the god Jupiter transforms himself into a bull, seduces and abducts Europa. Our current label focused mostly on the artist and his style and did little to address the story. What arose from our story jam, however, were lots of questions about the scene itself: why is the bull the central figure? Who is the victim in this story? Why does the bull look “Disneyfied”?

Bernardo Cavallino and follower (Johann Heinrich Schönfeld? 1609-1683) (1616-ca. 1656). Europa and the Bull, about 1645. Oil on canvas; 24 x 31 13/16 inches. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 31-50.

First, we spent time looking closely at the painting and noticed that the bull is looking directly at viewers and almost winking. For many in the room, this felt like the way into the story. We could start with the specific object, move to the story of how Jupiter tricked Europa, and then touch upon broader ideas around gender and power dynamics in myths. Our curator shared that the title of the painting had also changed throughout time, from The Abduction of Europa to Europa and the Bull, opening a conversation about an object’s life and how our understanding of these myths and paintings can shift.

We also realized that the broader discussion of power dynamics would be better to include in a section panel in the gallery, near an entrance. This would allow us to address these ideas upfront, without having to then repeat ourselves on every specific object label in the gallery that dealt with a similar myth. In creating a broader theme panel, we could spend time in specific object labels focusing on the work of art itself. This push to think holistically about a whole gallery experience rather than just one label helped alleviate some pressure on all object labels, opening space to touch on big themes while also being specific in our interpretation of specific objects.

What’s next?

This process continues to evolve and right now we are in the midst of codifying label principles and evaluating these new labels. We hope to share more about where we’re headed in the next post.

About the Authors

Rachel Nicholson is the Director, Interpretation, Evaluation & Visitor Research at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.  You can reach her at rnicholson@nelson-atkins.org. Every two weeks throughout April and May 2021, Rachel will share her team’s efforts to rewrite the Nelson-Atkins’ permanent collection gallery labels through a harm reduction lens. Read her first two posts here.

Jocelyn Edens, is an Interpretive Planner at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Ariana Chaivaranon is an artist and an Interpretive Planner at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Born in Thailand, Chaivaranon studied Visual and Environmental Studies and the History of Art at Harvard. Chaivaranon is a board member of Plug, a curatorial collaboration and exhibition space supporting emerging artists in Kansas City.

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