Titles and the typical museum experience Matt 28 Nov 2005

36 comments Latest by karl

I feel like there’s a bug in the typical museum experience. I don’t like that you see and experience a piece of art before you learn its title.

When you read a book, the title isn’t put on the last page. When you see a movie, the title isn’t revealed during the closing credits. Yet when you go to a museum, titles take a backseat.

Here’s an example from the Fundacio Miro museum (link warning: gratuitous Flash) in Barcelona:

museum titles

As a viewer, you’re virtually forced to soak in the image without knowing what it’s called. In fact, most museumgoers don’t even bother to check out the small placard which lists the title — in a teeny tiny font too.

I get that the title is often merely an afterthought to the visual. But in this case, and lots of others, the title is integral to appreciating the work.

This piece is called “The Smile of a Tear” (full image w/ description). Sure, you can still get a lot out of it without knowing what it’s called but it’s neat to see the paradox of a smiling tear reflected in the stark contrast between the two halves of the picture. And would anyone who didn’t see the title recognize the black blob as a tear?

I understand that museums don’t want to distract from the art by clogging up walls with gratuitous signage. But isn’t there some way to fix this cart-before-the-horse experience? Maybe it’s a good case for HyperSonic Sound, which can target audio to a single person. It’d be pretty cool if, when you approached a piece of art, you heard a voice tell you the title (and any other relevant info) without anyone else in the room having to hear it. Or maybe there’s a better solution. I just think there’s something off with the way things work now.

36 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Don Wilson 28 Nov 05

I would suggest that the art is the actual title and the history that you learn behind it is the actual contents of the book, movie, or whatever example you want to compare it to.

Jared Christensen 28 Nov 05

Content is king, right? I’ve always thought of art titles as ancillary to the actual art. I don’t go to museums to check out artwork titles, I go to look at art. If I like a piece and want to know more background info, there’s always a placard nearby. And that’s the way it’s been for many years.

kayvaan 28 Nov 05

Think of it as a fun game. When you encounter a new piece, look at it, absorb it, then come up with your *own* title for it. Then check out the “real” title.

Remember - this is art. It’s as much about how you perceive it as what the artist thought. There is no right or wrong. No “bugs”. Just the art and what it means to you…

Hey - maybe books shouldn’t have titles either… ;)

A. Arp 28 Nov 05

I personally have never had issue with this. In my own experiences in art museums I find that if a painting catches my eye I’ll walk up to the placard first, read the title and artists name, skim the blurb, then step back to view the painting.

I personally find it much more enjoyable to view a painting armed with a bit of background so I don’t mind taking a couple extra steps to read the teeny tiny print.

Dan Boland 28 Nov 05

I’ve never had a problem with it either. I’m of the opinion that the title of a painting or sculpture is more or less irrelevant… a movie or a book or a song takes a certain amount of time for the entirety of the piece to be absorbed, whereas a painting or sculpture is generally instantaneous. But that’s just me.

It’s funny you mention Hypersonic Sound, because technology such as this is a pretty scary thing. You think advertising is overdone now? Wait until marketers can “whisper in your ear” as you pass by. If that doesn’t give you the creeps, I don’t know what will. I don’t deny the potential usefulness for it, but I foresee the technology being abused.

Peter Eliasson 28 Nov 05

Too bad the art world is full of the equivalent of “photoshopitis”; Untitled 1, Untitled 2, and so on.

Ugo Cei 28 Nov 05

Most paintings were never given a title by their creators. This is true for classical works of art and mostly true for modern works too. I’m not sure about Miro, but it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine that some anonymous cataloguer choose that title, which maybe is something entirely different from what Miro had in mind when he painted it.

RJB 28 Nov 05

I think the relationship between art and text is a very interesting one.

Some artists deliberately omit any title or text from their work while others place more importance on what can be pages and pages of text, in turn becoming the art itself.

Cart-before-the-horse… I do not think so. Wherever you are, however you experience the art as a viewer is the intention of the artist, curator or whomever. As a viewer we can play around this by choosing to read the title first and then view the work. But how much control should the viewer have? If any.

Artists, museums and galleries use text in numerous ways, but in an “everyday” situation, where multiple artists´┐Ż works are shown side by side, I feel this is the best-known way of displaying a work’s title.

jean zaque 28 Nov 05

matt, for me, as for a few others above, the little labels beside the big paintings is not at all a “cart-before-the-horse experience.” in fact, if there was some way to go to the movies or read books without (always) knowing the title, i’d be up for that too.

is the title really integral to appreciating the work? i have to say that in my experience, that’s rarely been the case. i find the title adds not just a layer between me and the work, but some freight as well. i taught myself long ago to really *look* at paintings before looking at the titles - at which point, the title becomes more of a gloss on the work, an afterthought. this has paid off for me again and again. i’m not saying it will for everyone - just sayin’ …

nice to see comments on for a bit - please bullies, don’t abuse them.

art fan 28 Nov 05

almost every museum i’ve been to has pamphlets at the entrance to each exhibit. pick one up and read it as you go through the exhibit, and it’ll introduce you to each piece of art as you get there.

no need for a fancy technological solution here, in fact there’s no need here at all. just pick up the piece of paper that’s already there waiting for you.

(OK, i admit that lesser museuems may not do this- if you’re visiting one of those then buy a guide book first. and if the museum you’re visiting doesn’t have a guide book, then it’s probably either (a) not worth visiting, or (b) so worth visiting that it has actual human guides).

Kjell Olsen 28 Nov 05

I’d be more interested in having the *artist* denoted prominently. Titles can be interesting, but without the artist a title won’t do much good in referencing all but the most popular pieces.

brad 28 Nov 05

A sort of parallel: When I was an environmental educator, some of my colleagues felt there was too much emphasis on learning the names of plants and animals, so when they led nature walks they would talk about a plant or bird’s characteristics and its place in the ecosystem without actually giving its name. But many people—especially kids—found that very frustrating. When you meet someone, one of the first things you want to know is his or her name. I think our brains are set up to store information this way: we have a little mental file with a title “John Doe” and we put all the things we know about John into that file. Imagine if we just knew everyone by their face only, without a corresponding name. Wouldn’t it be harder to remember the information we know about them? I think so.

But it’s less clear with art…there are many paintings, photographs, and sculptures that stay in my mind even though I have no idea what they are called. But in some cases having the title makes you view the piece with a new understanding. In other cases, though, the artist just slaps on a title that is meant to sound deep or obscure, to try to trick you into thinking that there’s more to the artwork than meets the eye.

Ara Pehlivanian 28 Nov 05

What is art? I decree that my comment is art. *sigh* nonsense.

tina 28 Nov 05

i work in the museum exhibit design field. the question that you raise is an important one.

what should the visitor focus on? the object or the content? the answer, of course, depends on the visitor. my thought is that museums should support exhibit design that subtly encourages visitors to examine the object first (and make their own opinions about it) and provides information second.

then comes the second question, what information? some people will want to know the artist. others the title or medium. or the method used to create the art. or the social/political/cultural/etc context in which it was created. or something completely different.

and finally, how do you present the information? text in tiny print on the wall — yikes, not my favorite option. text in a brochure — expensive to produce, get left behind, but can be kept as a souvenir. audio — can intrude on the experience for others if it is localized or can create isolated experiences if it is on headsets. guides — unreliable content, many visitors get “shy” around guides.

so what’s the answer? i’m not quite sure but it is great to hear all of your thoughts on the matter.

J 28 Nov 05

This is a very interesting post, and the comments too have been appreciated.

1. Matt is objecting to having his experience controlled by the museum, although his solution merely shifts the control, everyone must know the title - it is still controlled.

2. Personally I have museum visits where I agree with Matt, and others where I don’t, ie I want to see the pictures without any words, or dates. So for me any change should be to increase the freedom.

3. Personally, I am less interested in the title, than the author and the dates, and potentially, the subject (ie portraits). As pointed out above, lots don’t have titles, and certain genres have dead boring titles.

4. The current arrangement really interfers with one’s viewing pleasure, as many other views step in front to get close enough to read the little card. This, for me, would be the main benefit of a different solution.

5. Some museums utilise the harddisk capabilities of the TiVo, so to speak, and have quite nice, small, walkman (sorry, IPod, I am too old) like devices. The better museums then have a number by each painting, which can be quite small and still easily readable. Keying this number into the device results in the playing of information. Personally I would like a Option A (just title, artist, year) and Option B (plus chat), but usually one only gets Option B.

6. I suppose a really good device would have a separate number system for room as whole. As I recall, the Miro museum in Barcelona has the room feature (and only that, or maybe a few extras for some paintings).

Very interesting post!

indi 28 Nov 05

While I agree that knowing the title of a piece is often of secondary importance, it is useful information when you want to talk about it later or are looking for a reproduction.

Stefan Seiz 28 Nov 05

I am happy with the way it is. I enjoy looking at Art that is larger than the title afixed to it ;-) After all, most artists are — well — artists and not journalists/texters/writers. It’s the Art that counts and touches us, not the titles. And that is decided soley by the Artists themselves simply because they generaly do not paint a title into their painting — would they believe a title is important, they’d surely have one visible in their piece of art. There realy isn’t a usability problem with everything ;-)

Greg 28 Nov 05

Honestly, don’t really see a problem. With movies, they show you the title and then the story starts or continues. The same is true with a book, you look at the cover and maybe the title page and then you proceed with the story. The title may be at the bottom of every page, but it’s small and not distracting.

With art though, the image is static. It will never change until you move on to the next piece (let’s not worry about series art here)

If the title were huge, like a banner, over the art piece, I think that would actually take away from the piece.

Art is totally subjective, most of the time the title doesn’t really even matter anyway. A piece may look like a building to one person and a stream of water to another.

indi 28 Nov 05

eric (demi-bee),

In your example it’s clear that the artist intended the title to be a part of the painting … kind of a performance piece

TK 28 Nov 05

Hooray for the status quo? OK, not really, but in this case, I’m with those who like it the way it is — I like being able to draw my own meaning from a work of art before I know its title, or the name, gender, age, or nationality of the artist. Then I can use that information to see new facets of the piece when I’m ready.

Similarly, I was disappointed when, several years ago, a favorite magazine started putting the authors’ names inder the titles of short stories rather than at the end. I felt that it colored my perception of the story unnecessarily.

Bruno Unna 28 Nov 05

I experience the exhibition as a whole, of which the distinct pieces have an identity of their own. In that sense the exhibition is different from a movie show (at least a mainstream one), and different from a book (unless it is a recopilation).

The exhibition had a much larger, conspicuous title, I’m sure of that. Or am I wrong?

Tim 28 Nov 05

It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

If you think of an art museum as something akin to flickr or a blog, you might start to think of object information (title, artist, date, label copy) as tags rather than content. It would make an interesting experiment to give tags top billing over content, but I ultimately think their utility is as a finding aid (everyone loves their smart folders and their permalinks), not as interpretive content.

Of course, the exception is artwork where the title really is an interpretive tool — and even in those cases you wouldn’t want the title front and center, since there is often an intentional tension between what the work appears to be and how it is described by the title.

Arcanum-XIII 28 Nov 05

I’m an artist myself. Most (if not all) of my drawing has no title at all (because I don’t care/no time/no need for it). Nearly every artist I speak with do the same - try to do the same amount of drawing/painting and you will do it too… Do you name each of your work???
And most of the time, we don’t do a painting, a sculpture or a drawing to give it a title :p We do it so people can see it and react to it - the title is a system to share it with people around you (faster than a description each time).

But yeah some time, to understand something you need a title.

Dave 28 Nov 05

I like this blog, and am a big fan of good design, but this is one of the worse ideas I have heard. If you must know the title first you can easily head directly for the little tag and read it yourself. They are almost always predictably placed and you can have your cake without ruining the experience for the rest of us. I would find the experience of walking around a museum and having names “shouted” at me as unpleasant as taking a walk in a rain forest with all the plants tagged and named, or a hike on a mountain top with each peak on the horizon labeled. Yes, its interesting to know that information, and maybe that’s why you have a guide, but it would ruin the experience to see every mountain peak “virtually tagged” as I gazed out on the horizon.

I am a professional artist (my livelihood is making and selling my art) and while a title oftens add an interesting dimension, visual art should rarely be dependant on it…after all it is an attempt to communicate visually, if a title is required for comprehension the piece is likely failing at its task. (There are many notable exceptions to this, but on a whole I believe it to be true).

Jan 28 Nov 05

Hypersonic sound? I thought you guys were the kings of simple :) A simple audio guide device that gets triggered if you move near a painting should be enough. It has the added benefit of being able to choose your language, and level of detail in the commentary.

ML 28 Nov 05

If titles don’t matter, why bother to have them at all?

Miro chose to call this piece “The Smile of a Tear” and not #FR53972. Why? Is this important? Is it ok that 99% of people who look at this piece never learn its title? If not, is the problem with lazy museumgoers or the way the museum is set up?

Maybe I care more about words/titles than the average art viewer. But I think titles matter. And I think they are supposed to come before the things they describe. Thus, I see a problem with the current experience. It just feels off to me.

I understand why the status quo system works the way it does but I wonder if there’s a better way. Obvs the HSS idea isn’t ideal but I prefer to offer a brainstorm solution instead of merely kvetching.

Ted 28 Nov 05


I did a small study on this last semester, and what I found was that people actually spend more time looking at the titles then at the artwork. (Something like 10 seconds on average for the titles, 7 seconds for the artwork)

It is my personal opinion that it is appropriate for titles and descriptions to take a back seat. The artwork should be the focus of attention, and titles tend to constrict our understanding of artwork. I think that the book analogy does not really apply in this sense - books are fundementally very different from artwork.

Bastiaan Terhorst 29 Nov 05

I assume you mostly mean modern art, because with ‘traditional’ art, the title is usually a direct description of what can be seen on the canvas.

With modern art, I think there is a very peculiar ‘game’ going on between the title and the piece itself. Sometimes it clarifies the shapes in the painting (or object, or whatever), but sometimes if throws you completely off-track, and makes you rethink the whole piece.

I think it’s a much nicer experience to absorb a piece first, form your own opinions and views, and then —maybe— look at the title.

Are you one of those people who try to rationalize poems? :)

ML 29 Nov 05

Are you one of those people who try to rationalize poems?

Hmm…I do read the titles of poems first so maybe so.

tina 29 Nov 05

ML — good points.

how would it change the whole discussion if we were talking about another type of object (not art in an art museum)?

let’s imagine we’re in a history museum in an exhibit about the ‘adventure of early flight.’ what should the label for an airplane say? what if it was the plane that charles lindbergh flew across the atlantic?

or let’s imagine we’re at an aquarium and there is a tank with a stingray that can camouflage itself against the ocean (and tank) floor?

providing information for visitors IS important. there are countless methods that are being currently used all over the world. i don’t agree that saying the status quo is fine just because that’s the way it has always been. but i also don’t agree that we should make object information take precedence over the original object.

ted had a good point about doing studies. if you find out what your visitors (to your specific museum) want to know about objects, you can direct the information more precisely to their interests. or use their interests as a jumping-off point to get to other relevant information.

Big Poppa 29 Nov 05

They are called ‘Text Panels’ not placards

qwerty 29 Nov 05

Have you noticed that an Apple store is quite similar to a (design) museum? Products are prominently displayed whereas their name, features, and price are shown on small white panels. This is in sharp contrast to many electronic stores where the price is most prominent.

Gary 29 Nov 05

Reading this post and the comments I’m reminded of John Berger’s book ‘Ways of Seeing’ and of how words/accompanying text can hugely effect our experience of looking at an image. The following extract by Laurie Dickinson (from http://mh.cla.umn.edu/ebibld5.html) clearly explains the example given in the book.

“In an illustration of how words can impact on an image, Berger places a black-and-white reproduction of a Van Gogh at the bottom of page 27. It is recognizably Van Gogh and we could tell, even if there weren’t text above it to confirm our assumption that it is “a landscape of a cornfield with birds flying out of it” (27). Subsequent text tells us to “look at it for a moment. Then turn the page” (27). When we do so (after looking the requisite moment), we find the same picture at the top of page twenty-eight, accompanied by two “bits” of text. The first, which runs down the left-hand margin, tells us the painting’s vital statistics - “WHEATFIELD WITH CROWS BY VAN GOGH 1853-1890” - but it is the other text, written in a clearly legible handwriting, that catches our attention. It reads, simply, “This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself” (28). The impact of these words on this picture was immediate and irrevocable.”

Kartik Vaddadi 30 Nov 05

I think things are better the way they are - I don’t want my opinion of the artist color my impression of the art, which we can’t help though we may tell ourselves it doesn’t matter.

A friend of mine did a very interesting experiment - he wrote a poem and showed it to a bunch of friends, the majority of whom rated it just “okay”. He then showed it to another set of people, but this time he claimed it was written by Abraham Lincoln, and guess what? Most people rated it “really great”.

karl 27 Feb 06

does anyone have a big photo if the painting in question becuase i cant find any on the net …

The smile of a tear, 1973
Oil on canvas
200,6 x 200,6 cm