Wall Talk: Do We Even Need Museum Wall Labels?

There was a time when the how to make museum labels and texts in museum shows were matter-of-fact explanations—the artist, title, date, medium, and then a few informative words from the curator. But as exhibitions have become more extravagant, provocative, and controversial, attended by a public that is increasingly diverse, museum staffs face greater challenges in satisfying everybody.

Are the curators considering issues of political correctness, acknowledging suspect sources of funding, fudging facts about a collector’s (or an artist’s) questionable politics or private behavior, or withholding anything that might be relevant to the public’s desire for information? As institutions reach out to broader audiences, the proper nature of wall texts has been provoking debate, and even hostility, among museum factions. All the while, focus groups, audience surveys, and academic studies have been trying to sort it all out.

In the wake of allegations that Bill Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted some 40 women, scant attention has been paid to the comedian’s activities as an art collector. But a few sharp-eyed critics did take note of Camille and Bill Cosby’s loan of close to a third of the works in the exhibition “Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. In an open letter to the museum published last July on the website Hyperallergic, writer and editor Jillian Steinhauer made the following request: “Remove the portraits of him and the quotes by him, the lines of wall text that make Bill Cosby sound like a kind-hearted family man.” Kriston Capps, writing in the Atlantic, suggested striking the Cosbys’ name entirely from the show.