The Art of Creating a Label

On October 13, Luminous: The Art of Asia opens at SAM Downtown. SAM houses one of the finest collections of Asian art in the United States and Luminous showcases that. Totaling 160 pieces, this exhibition meshes the ancient with the contemporary while leaving room for individual interpretation and questioning.  Do Ho Suh is an artist who has worked closely with SAM over the years and has contributed his own contemporary installation to the show as well as his perspectives, ideas and questions, which pepper the labels of various pieces on display.

A common thread that runs through Luminous is the highlighting of difficulties in museum practices. Museums have a very difficult job telling the public the intended message of their pieces in an accurate and concise manner. In discussions with Catherine Roche, the curator of Luminous, Suh said, “The museum is a space of displacement. Every object in a museum has been moved from its original context and placed on a pedestal.” He goes on to mention the important role that the museum has; piecing together gaps to tell the overall story. The question remains – what is the best way for the museum to tell the story? There are three common ways: guided tours, audio guides, and the ever-present labels.

We asked Roche to give us insight on the formation and importance of those labels. She wrote:

Writing labels is a tricky business. In a highly contained and constrained format, the curator has a minimum amount of space to offer—what? Knowledge? Insight? Wit? Truth? The museum object label must present enough information to augment the viewer’s experience or understanding of the object, but it must not overwhelm with extraneous details or academic verbosity. It is not the platform for the curator to show off everything she knows about a certain artist or genre, but it is important to present that inspired tidbit that might entice a viewer look twice at an object.

People have different relationships to museum labels. I, for one, am an avid label reader. Though I hesitate to admit this, I typically read the label before looking at an object. My looking is very much guided by the label, and I typically prefer more not less information. I like words more than images (an odd thing for a curator to confess) and it matters to me that the label be lively and well written. Guided by the label, I then turn my attention to the object and take it in, though I frequently find myself referring back to the label to confirm the object’s date or place of production.

Others I know vehemently dislike labels and almost never read them. These people tend to be the biggest art lovers I know, as well as the ones who would rather not find themselves in a museum in the first place. The former are the type of people who are so passionate about art, so visual, so engaged in looking, that they have no use for a mediated experience of an object. I have always been kind of jealous of this type of person, who is self-assured and who trusts her own instincts over the words of a hired specialist. I want to be this person, who knows so much she doesn’t need to ask, or doesn’t know that much but doesn’t care, but I never could be.

What’s funny about this label thing is that although I love labels, I don’t particularly like guided tours and I hate audio guides. I find the latter cheesy—particularly when they involve period music—and the former boring and restrictive. I always wander off during tours and go into the next gallery, trying to escape the jostling crowds and the forced looking. What’s nice about labels is that they allow you to guide yourself, but don’t force the issue. You can always move on, or simply stop reading and start looking.

-Catherine Roche, Curator of Luminous: The Art of Asia