I saw some amazing labels in Milan, Italy. No, not the ones you expect, like Prada or Gucci, but real, live terrific museum texts. In general, I've found that Italian museum labels are pretty bad--either containing the barest amount of text or deep into theoretical knowledge that the average museum-goer can't penetrate. But evidently Milan is a place where engaging labels have taken hold--and even more of a feat, engaging labels in English. I have a huge appreciation for museum label writers who engage all of us in a language not their own, making the labels sing with a kind of poetry. I'll be writing another post with some further reflections on the ICOM conference, but before it's too far away in my mind, enjoy the labels!
First, at the Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia. An ICOM open night was also a public free night, so the museum was mobbed, but amidst the crowds, I found myself intrigued by labels like these. I found many of the labels I liked more poetic than the usual. Here's an opening label for the entire museum. It says,
The museum is alive. It belongs and is open to all. Today the world spins fast and we are all looking for explanations and opportunities. The museum is alive; it is the museum of the becoming of the world.And an exhibit on clocks and watches, asked a philosophical question to begin:
The introductory labels helped us understand the theme, and why this exhibit was in a science and technology museum.
A hallway exhibit explored how we imagined the future of food, from 1900 to today and evidently there's a Trekkie at work at the museum, because one of the examples was this, that food would be replicable and multi-cultural, with Star Trek dialogue as the text.
A very different museum is the Pinocoteca di Brera, a classic picture gallery, but with a new director, James Bradbourne, formerly of Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. I loved that the gallery now explained its purpose with a quote from a former director, Franco Russoli.
"A museum is a place for participation, not for evasion or isolation or separation, that liberates its visitors by engaging them."
Also at the entrance and throughout the museum, new labels explained why museums do what they do and the changes they see in the galleries. New family labels and labels written by artists and writers, encourage us to think in new ways about what we're seeing.
I love that this label connects St. Peter's expression in the art with the physical properties of the painting, conservation issues, and another way to look at all the other work in the room.
Here's a description devoid of art historical terms, yet getting us to think about the work's composition and thinking about what might have happened outside the frame, before and after the scene depicted in the painting.
At the Milan Triennale, which happens in venus indoors and out all over the city, I found the exhibit, Neo-Prehistory:100 Verbs curated by Andrea Branzi and Kenya Hara. The visitor wound through an exhibit of seemingly unrelated objects, one hundred tools, each identified by a verb that took us from pre-history to the present. Rely: an iPhone; Despair: a bomb; Fascinate: a bottle of Chanel No. 5. The verbs' definitions are the only label text in addition to the simplest object ID labels. Yet I found myself puzzling and reading each one. Sometimes I was drawn by the object to read the label, but sometimes vice versa. How does the story end? Regenerate, with a visualization of the human heart.
Is there a takeaway about these labels as a group? I think it is that there is no one way to write a label and that each exhibit, each institution, must find their own voice, but it must be a voice that speaks to visitors and connects us emotionally, to our whole selves.