When I first visited museums, curators were catalogers. They organized, identified and labeled. Remember the brass attribution tags?
Today things are different. Curators are educators, critics, philosophers and marketeers, and interns do the cataloging.
Of course, there’s a lot to like about 21st century curating. We still get great promotional posters, but mimeographed handouts have morphed into polychrome exhibition catalogs — works of art in themselves. And most art exhibits are now fleshed out with books, manuscripts, photos, sketches, and occasionally artifacts.
Many modern exhibits are also interpreted by a related movie or slideshow — often both — by audio guides delivered by headphone or cell phone, and by tours conducted by a docent. All include explanatory material writ large on the walls.
Enough! It’s time for a usability reset. The curatorial guidance, which should be elucidating the art, is masking it like moss on a rock. The curator’s impressions, no matter how astute, insightful or learned, shouldn’t get in the way of our enjoyment — physical, intellectual or emotional.
The curator’s notes, which often read like a doctoral thesis, should be optional. The wall panels describing each piece should be succinct, uniformly informative, and legible at five paces.
I’m not advocating a return to the brass tag era. But I’ll scream if I encounter another exhibit where the wall panels, printed in small, artsy, pastel fonts, are barely legible, verbose, and almost as big as the art they describe.
Great art is visceral, emotional and uplifting. It communicates not by language, but by eye. The trained eye appreciates more, but the en pointe discourse shouldn’t obscure the objets d’art.
Let’s keep the 21st century curatorial technology, but restore the Renaissance focus. Let the art speak in its master’s voice..