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Over recent months I’ve had numerous discussions about art and interpretation. Many people suggest that art doesn’t need interpretation. As someone who began her university career in the arts before entering the field of interpretation and heritage, I find this stance puzzling [1]. And the more I think about it, the more troubled I am by it, particularly in a museum context.

 

On the one hand, the issue certainly lies with people’s lack of knowledge of interpretation. Interpretation does not exist in Germany as the comprehensive discipline and practice it is in the English-speaking world [2]. And so when I talk about interpretation, the first thing people tend to respond to is the term itself. They think of interpretation in the classic sense, as a single viewpoint or understanding, or as a particular rendition of a creative work. This isn’t a new misunderstanding, of course. Even in English, the language of origin of the discipline of interpretation, the term has caused confusion and debate. Nevertheless, in English we’ve come to an agreement which, as the discipline gained traction, has widely become accepted by others also. The consensus is that interpretation in the museum and heritage contexts means ‘x’. Discussion over. Moving on.

 

I generally try to explain ‘x’ along the lines of ‘giving people a foundation to engage with an exhibition’. I explain that in interpretation, a basic principle is to carefully consider visitors and their needs, in other words, to have a visitor focus, or what in German is termed Besucherorientierung. And this is where people often start to argue.

 

Art, I am told, cannot be ‘about visitors’. To consider visitors within an exhibition, to provide an infrastructure that responds to their needs, is to stifle art. Interpretation, it has been suggested to me, would prevent exciting concepts, leading to art exhibitions that are commonplace and boring. And so interpretation is in fact an insult to visitors, for they do not need it and are visiting to appreciate art undisturbed by such banal intrusions.

 

Interpreters know of course that just the opposite is true. And the experiences with the success of interpretation by whatever term it goes in Germany, as well as the evidence of visitor books and visit numbers tell us another story also. This rejection of interpretation is therefore not based on the evidence. So the question begs what else might be going on here. We can’t know the underlying motivations without further research, so I’m focussing instead on the consequences of such attitudes and this desired act of not providing interpretation.

 

The first consequence is that we’re sending out a subtle message: if you don’t understand art without additional aids, then probably an art museum isn’t the right place for you. It also creates two groups: those who understand art (and therefore don’t need interpretation), and those who don’t. Considering that the claim is that interpretation somehow stifles and diminishes the quality of art, there is also a message of superiority here, of a higher level of understanding and sophistication.

 

Not providing interpretation, in other words, not making visible the underlying (intended) concepts of the artwork or its wider context also means that the breadth and depth of its critical examination is limited to a small number of people (supposedly) ‘in the know’. It’s the ‘Authorizing Discourse’ all over again, self-referential and self-affirming. Non-experts are unlikely to be able to mount a serious challenge to the art they see, either. If you don’t even know what an artwork is meant to address, you can neither form an opinion on the validity of the concept nor on the quality of the execution. Your views can be easily dismissed (because you clearly don’t understand) or they are castrated (because they remain superficial).

 

Superficiality of engagement is the real tragedy for me when it comes to the refusal of interpreting art. Art is not like heritage in that sense. Art can be so abstract, so conceptual that without further explanation people truly will not manage to fully engage and respond to art. To take their reactions of dispproval as real engagement is a betrayal of them. They haven’t engaged. They are frustrated. That is not the same.

 

The result of all of the above is ultimately exclusion. And in a museum context I cannot find any justification for this. No matter what contemporary definition of a museum you use, one of its core elements is always a variation on education and/or engagement. If museums do not make possible either, then they are not fulfilling one of their main purposes.

 

Professional interpretation doesn’t get in the way of art. It doesn’t force itself on visitors, nor does it provide a one-size-fits-all solution. What it does do is widen the reach of art. It provides an infrastructure that makes it possible for more people to engage – dare I say ‘meaningfully’ – with art. If that is not in the interest of art, then the problem in my view is not with interpretation.

 

 

Notes

[1] Here’s a not-so-well known fact about me: I studied Comparative Literature to BA-level (I switched after what was thens till the Intermediate Exam) before I completed a Masters of Art in Creative Arts, with a focus on Interdisciplinary Arts.

[2] Interpretation as a comprehensive discipline doesn’t exist in Germany, but that doesn’t mean its basic principles and indeed its practices are entirely unknown. Thankfully, there is a lot of overlap, the difference being, however, that what is covered by Interpretation is split into multiple disciplines in Germany. Which also leads to what I find is a discursive jungle. It makes me appreciate the formation that’s been developed in Interpretation, even if I wish much of it were moving on more quickly than it is.

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A couple of weeks back I visited the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Historic Art) in Vienna. Interpretation of art is not my specialism, and I’m always intrigued by what art museums do. You get anything from, well, nothing, to rather tediously specific texts that try to explain every dot of paint on the canvas. Sometimes I’m inspired, and rather more often, I want to pull my hair out.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum did both to me. The Egyptian Gallery was a blast just for the decorations. Firstly, it incorporated actual Egyptian columns into the architecture of the suite of rooms, which let you subtly appreciate what these beautiful things were actually meant to do. Secondly, on the walls were reproductions from wall paintings found in Egyptian tombs, which created a kind of artistic-mock authentic experience that I thought gave more depth to the objects [1].

The gallery with Greek busts was one of the best-lit galleries I’ve seen in a long time. I can’t tell you anything about who created the busts, where exactly they came from, or who they were of – which, in terms of interpretation’s usually proclaimed outcome of learning would suggest the interpretation was very poor indeed [2]. But the drama of the light was spectacular, and combined with the arrangement of the busts on high plinths I felt I was looking at them with much greater attention than anywhere else before.

And then there was room after room of objects in cases. I will say that the cases, which looked like they dated from the 19th century, when the museum was originally built, were actually rather pleasing. But as was wont to happen, I was quickly overwhelmed with the sheer amount of stuff there was to see. I suppose I craved some guidance, and found it, to some extent, in some interactives that allowed you to zoom into high resolution images of highlight objects. What was a bit frustrating was that once I’d done that, the interpretation didn’t tell me where to go to see the thing for myself.

And finally: the galleries of historic paintings. The display was of the cramped kind, the mother of all multi-hangs reaching all the way up to the already triple-height ceiling. Needless to say, in order to see the paintings on top you had to find just the right spot in the room, and then they were still too far removed to properly view them. The rooms had different interpretive approaches; in some there were railings in front of the walls, which had interpretive text in German and English: about the artist, the motif, and a bit of contextual background. Those were nice; I’m the kind of visitor who needs and likes a bit of info about the story that’s depicted in historic art. But in other rooms there literally was nothing but the dreaded (poshly) laminated sheets of photographs of each wall, that numbered the paintings and then gave you naught but the artist’s name, the title of the painting, and the date. What was even more frustrating was that you had to hunt for the right sheet – after all, there were four walls, four different sheets, lots of people, and lots of pockets where the sheets might be kept. Needless to say, I didn’t find the sheets I was after, nor could I be bothered to look extensively for them.

What was interesting was that I had similar experiences as what has emerged in audience research that for several months now, I’ve been involved in at one of the main art museums in the UK. Visitors criticized multi-hangs, they appeared to want introductory information, and they didn’t make the connection between art and culture – or the insights that art can give into culture. Knowing the art on display also made a difference to their experience, which holds a lot of clues about how art might be promoted, and displayed so visitors can become familiar with it.

At least, that’s what I thought when at Belvedere Palace I walked into a gallery of Gustav Klimt paintings. I’m not a Klimt expert, but I’ve also not lived under a rock: I knew these paintings, and I was excited to be able to properly, up close, look at them. This was the purist approach to a gallery hang, with lots of space between paintings, and I cherished it. And you know what? I bought tons of Klimt postcards just because of that positive experience – and nothing at the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Notes

[1] Just for the record (again), I am not convinced we have sufficient justification to rob anyone’s grave of anything and then display it as art. But that’s just by the by.

[2] There were labels, some of which described the obvious: ‘Bust of a young man.’ And nothing else. Others did state who was depicted, where known – but nothing further.

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