“Explaining art to people means explaining the world to them, and there is no master voice,” said Robert Storr at the conclusion of his lecture, Dumbing down or Smartening up: How Museums Address Their Publics .
While contemporary art has largely dismissed teleological discourse and the idea of a master narrative in favor of a less reductive, more inclusive approach to exhibiting and curating, Storr pointed out that many museums fail to make their work legible and accessible to their publics. In response to the overly didactic and pedagogical layout of an exhibition which aims to depict the timeline of an artist,-ism, movement, or nation, Storr proposes that through the collaboration of educators and curators, the layout of an exhibition space may be designed to guide the viewer to his/her own interpretation of the artwork. While opposing audio guides for their prescribed directional path and simplified information, Storr advocates strategically placed wall texts accompanied by readable publications and brochures that do not present “complex ideas under the presumption of the transparency of language.” While Storr encouraged museums not to underestimate their audience, he also discouraged those curating for “the masses” not to place themselves on a pedestal of taste. Museums, as the “public libraries of visual culture,” have a responsibility to make their space and work accessible to a wide variety of audiences, but sometimes get into trouble when material is too “user friendly.”
While the Goldilocks conundrum of presenting just the right amount of information in just the right form is a challenge, applying this theory to curatorial practice can prove to be even more controversial. Providing an explanation to a work suggests that art has a finite meaning and names the museum as the authoritative structure for defining art. But not providing the viewer with a frame of reference can be seen as pretentious and makes the art inaccessible. But how do we make ideas accessible without oversimplifying or over-analyzing?
At MASS MoCA we strive to engage visitors in a dialogue regarding contemporary art and present them with the opportunity to create meaning in the art. We try to combine thoughtful exhibition layout, limited wall text, carefully placed art cards, daily public tours, and well designed catalogues to provide our audience with the information to allow them to make their own connections and judgments.
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