Rant 88: Interpretation Matters!

Rant 88: Interpretation Matters! Carol Sommer, On Colour (detail), 2012

Not everyone appreciates being told what to think by interpretation boards in galleries, but if written in the right way, this information can really help a visitor find a way into an artwork. But is the information some galleries give us helpful, or is it just showing off?

How often have you walked into a gallery, read the written interpretation boards next to the artworks, and felt none the wiser? How often have you felt that they haven’t told you what you want to know, that you've been left with more questions than answers, or that you haven’t understood a word? How frequently do you read the seemingly compulsory phrases: “questions the notion of…” or “challenges the viewers’ ideas about…” without the least idea of what notions are being questioned, or why, and what supposedly wrong ideas you have that are being challenged?

Written interpretation in our galleries could be so much better. Too often it seems to obfuscate (sorry, I mean confuse) rather than elucidate (sorry, I mean explain). It often lacks clarity or a satisfying narrative that anticipates questions the text is going to throw up, and a reader-friendly tone. Sometimes they seem to be written by specialists who are trying to summarise an essay's worth of knowledge into five or six sentences.

The average interpretation board is far too small – but the board sizes are rarely made larger, or increased in number. Instead complex ideas are collapsed into overly long but paradoxically too few sentences; or the concepts are over-simplified to the point of meaninglessness. As a result, many say very little of use, and at worst, they can actively work to alienate the reader.

There are serious professional debates about interpretation. Many curators and artists think that viewers shouldn’t be told what to think and that as little as possible should be inserted between the art and the viewer’s experience of it. The opposing argument is that visitors, even those familiar with art, appreciate a few contextual pointers. This is my own view. 

Exhibitions address such a wide range of art practices, concepts, mediums and messages that no-one can know about it all. Personally I only have so much headspace and the more interpretative help the better in my opinion. But whichever view you take, if you are going to have interpretation boards, then for goodness sake, PLEASE make them work!

Contributed by Dany Louise
Dany is an arts writer, independently commenting on visual arts and cultural policy, contributing to The Guardian, New Statesman, a-n Arts News and other publications.  She  works with arts organisations on a range of strategic development projects, and is researching a PhD on the interface between biennials of art and public policy.

For more information visit interpretationmatters.com or follow on twitter @InterpMatters

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