When does interpretation cross the line from mediation – providing a hook or a link between audiences and content – into interference: “over-interpretation”, where it’s simply getting in the way of a meaningful experience? Does this line shift depending on the audience? On the subject matter? Whether its science or its art?
A presentation I went to a few weeks ago challenged me to think about these questions. A curator from an art gallery background was sharing some findings from a study tour to the US and the UK. One of the images was from an exhibit familiar to me as one I’d seen at the (then) newly refurbished Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow:
Now back in 2006 when I saw this exhibit, I thought it was a pretty neat idea. Superimposed over the 19th century painting “The Marriage of Convenience” by William Orchardson are three small screens inside thought bubbles. A touchscreen interface allows visitors to fill in the bubbles emanating from the three protagonists in answer to the question “What are they thinking?”.
Over the years I’ve seen this exhibit put forward by interpreters as a way of engaging family visitors with art. As an example of “best practice”. Now here I was, listening to someone someone going beyond critique and essentially presenting it as an object of ridicule. I decided to explore this further in the Q&A afterwards. What was it about this exhibit that so attracted her ire?
Essentially it boiled down to the fact that it was visually intrusive  and unnecessary to interpret a painting whose Victorian-era morality tale was “not rocket science” to comprehend. She considered it an insult to visitors’ intelligence. Furthermore (and more to the point in my opinion), apparently visitor feedback hadn’t been positive. However, no data was presented to support this claim so it’s hard to know if it’s based on an exhibit evaluation or just the criticisms of a more vocal minority.
I think a couple of points of context need to be raised here. This exhibit was displayed in what was intended as a family gallery. It wasn’t targeted at arts officionados who may be instantly aware of Victorian symbolism in art. I saw (and appreciated) the exhibit as something that was intended to be a hook for visitors who may otherwise not give the piece a second glance. It seems I’m not the only person who saw it that way, as this piece vividly describes:
One of the most amusing interactivities–I could have stood there all day–focused on William Orchardson’s “The Marriage of Convenience.” Most visitors would give this painting–wherein a rich old man dines with his young, beautiful and profoundly bored wife as a dubious butler attends–a quick glance and walk on, dismissing it as a dreary 19th century remnant. But Kelvingrove (which by this point seems to be staffed by Monty Python) had placed thought bubbles next to the painting’s three figures’ respective heads. “What are they thinking?” we were asked, and as passersby typed away, the thought bubbles changed…”This isn’t working out the way I planned.”…”I thought he’d be dead by now “… “The master appears to have made a big mistake.”…. A “dull, boring” relic suddenly sprang to life–and became as contemporary as today’s trophy wives.
So at this point it might be easy to dismiss the art curator’s critique as missing the point of the exhibit and reinforcing the myth that art can somehow “speak for itself” even to those who don’t speak the language. That would be a convenient way of dismissing the criticism, but I’m not sure it’s quite so simple as that. As Nicole Deufel pointed out recently, we often accept interpretive “best practice” on the basis of flimsy evidence. That’s why I’d be keen to see if there was any evaluation of this exhibit and what it said. Perhaps this exhibit doesn’t do what it set out to. For me the visitor is the ultimate arbiter and arguing amongst ourselves is going to generate more heat than light.
Having said that, there are some points about subject matter and learning styles that warrant some further thought and discussion. Firstly the issue of interpreting art. I’ve heard art curators use the term “over-interpretation”, but interestingly I’ve never heard anyone lay the same accusation at the feet of science exhibits. Coming from a science background, I get the sense that there is an implicit assumption among “art” people that art is inherently understandable, you just need to take the time to look and think for long enough. And all that pesky interpretation is just “shouty” paraphernalia that gets in the way.
Another point of difference is how much interpretive “mediation” different kinds of visitors feel they need. Again revealing my science training, I tend to like knowing “the answer”. So I can feel cast adrift with art, because I don’t feel “the answer” is being made available to me. Now sometimes I know there is no answer, and that’s kind of the point. I can appreciate that. But other times I do wonder if there *is* some point that I’m supposed to get but I’m missing. And that just makes me feel stupid.
Bottom line is that our needs as visitors are not all the same. As exhibit planners we need to understand, respect and accommodate these differences, which might sometimes mean doing things that satisfy our target audiences but drive us personally nuts.
 In the discussion it also emerged that there may be conservation issues with the way the exhibit is installed in relation to the painting, and also the hardware now looks clunky and dated some 7 years (and an app revolution) later. These critiques, while legitimate, are tangential to the debate here.