Wordless at Tate Britain

I was at Tate Britain for a meeting but thought I’d take a look at the New Displays because the Guardian had reported its director Penelope Curtis’ decision to remove information panels. I’ve only been a cursory visitor in the past two years since her time in the post so hadn’t noticed many changes to the interpretation, although I’ve since heard that she has stripped information back a great deal. This account is, I hope, an insight for Tate and other museum professionals into what one experiences when you visit without full preparation or focused attention, and when your previous experiences of a museum drive your behaviour.

I’d skim-read the Guardian article assuming the stripping back referred only to the large panels explaining each room, so I was really surprised to see extended captions for maybe 95% of works gone. The labels are now only tombstones (artist, title, date, medium, donor). This example of a caption has more information than most because the donation of the portrait is significant for its location in the Manton entrance of the building. Most say much less.

Image 2

Also, wayfinding and room signage seems much reduced. I had noticed a room plan at the top of the Manton stairs but because of my meeting at that time I didn’t look at it. I assumed I’d see another one later but didn’t, so felt rather at a loss.

This BP Walk through British Art is reminiscent of Michael Gove’s wish for schools to teach ‘our island story’, one step in time from age 5 upwards, but minus the didacticism. I knew the hang must be chronological but still expected each room to possess and explain a linking rationale, such as a movement, links between artists, or a common centre of production. It turned out the linking rationale for each room was simply a decade, although I didn’t notice the signs for that at first. An Independent article reveals that curators had to go through the whole British collection to select works produced year after year, and it suggests they are actually hung round the room in that order (although I didn’t check that). I know that some believe a strictly chronological hang provides the perfect framework for contextual interpretation – it’s largely invisible yet still allows for logical historical connections. Of course, chronology is useful. But in this case, it is a spare skeleton without other tools for contextual investigation which can help us to understand the dynamics between: places and periods; continuity and discontinuity; materials and ideas; individuals and communities. Many artworks are ahead of or before, or simply outside, their time – time is only one way to make sense of them.

Of course, for decades, Tate’s thinking behind New Displays have been based on this realisation that chronology is not the only way to do history. Tate curator Chris Stephens writes about the hang in the Friends magazine as a radical loosening up, that “All [curators] were surprised at how difficult it was to dispense with deeply embedded art historical conventions.” He describes how the process threw up unexpected learning about the overlapping of timeframes of artists’ work. However, there is no information for the general visitor pointing out any of this, so it comes across as a process that benefits mainly curatorial insight.

I spent most of my visit working out what was going on. I’d wandered round most of the rooms and had asked questions of five attendants about how I might find information, and it was only the fifth attendant who pointed out that the decade of each room was in small shiny lettering on the floor, and that some visitors were clutching little printed guides. I’d noticed neither of these aids because I could not behave in the intuitive mode intended with this new display plan. I had not been retrained out of my information-seeking expectations.

I rarely pick up printed guides because I don’t like to use paper. The printed guide was not visibly available (I only saw it later when I passed the Information desk) and besides, visitors are asked to pay £1 for it. There are (unnecessary) colour images, which must account for its printing cost and £1 charge. This doesn’t guide you room by room to explain the chronological history of British art. It introduces the change, then promotes some ‘focus displays’ and upcoming exhibitions.

Image 1My main concern was the lack of captions and the lack of alternative or digital provision for them. The only access to the Tate’s website is via your own portable device if you have one. I was the only visitor I saw in an hour actively holding or using a smartphone, and we can’t assume that people have the means or inclination to use mobile devices. I’m sure from my own experience here and elsewhere that your attention is more distracted from the art by searching for caption information on your device than it is quickly checking a bit of text next to each work. Also, I gave up using my phone as I found it so difficult to explore the collections on it combined with taking in all the display changes.

For those interested in why I gave up, the main problems are:

a) Navigation: The section on visiting Tate Britain explaining the rehang is separate from collections. Collections are now under the heading of ‘Art and Artists’, which didn’t make immediate sense to me.

b) Lack of intellectual coherence: Not being able to find works room by room and explore their chronological context. Within Art & Artists, you can find 1067 works that are on display in Tate Britain, but they aren’t filtered by decade or room number. (Also, if you sort them by date, either oldest first and most recent first, the records that come up on those first pages mostly don’t have digitised images so you feel put off.)

I would have persisted by searching for individual items if I’d had time and more precise motivations. However, there were no prompts, apart from the works themselves, that encouraged me to look things up or to form and share any set of responses.

So, what do you do if you have questions? How can you make informed connections between the works in each room and the decade they were made in, and then between the rooms? How do you pin down your insights or questions as you move from artwork to artwork and on to the next room? What do you do if you don’t have questions but you would just like some connecting stimulus other than the works themselves?

I asked several attendants what people do when they want information. They were all (apart from one) quite pleasant and happy to explain the rationale behind the changes but not particularly helpful. They all gave different answers, sometimes with contradicting information about the resources available. (For example, one said you could get the internet on terminals in the library but others said there were no terminals.)

I came across two attendants with the Tate Britain selection on their iPads, but they were very passive and static. I didn’t see them using the devices with visitors and one didn’t show me anything when I asked what they had there. The attendants said that using iPads in the galleries was a trial, replacing folders of captions they used to have more for staff reference. I’m not sure what a trial of this nature would show, especially when they had so few iPads and were not letting visitors know about them. It might be slightly easier for attendants to use iPads than a folder when they need to check things but it wasn’t serving visitors better. The attendants told me that the rationale for the change was to encourage more interaction between staff and visitors, but they didn’t seem to have tactics for optimising this human interaction.

Because of my Art History training, I can articulate questions about artworks. I know the Tate’s collection fairly intimately from 9 years of working with it. Despite this, I still wanted prompts or reminders about subject matter or material techniques, or different views on contested interpretations. I wondered how people would respond who don’t have this background, or don’t have my confidence to pester attendants with a random question about Francis Bacon’s psyche or whatever? Because so little alternative information was on offer, I felt that there was a serious lack of consideration for people with a range of different access needs. An attendant also said that because captions were believed to distract visitors from looking at the artworks, they decided to remove the captions to let the art speak for itself. I asked if any visitor research was done to provide evidence to underpin this decision, and it seems there was not.

On the whole, visual art does not speak, although it does stimulate thoughts and feelings, and can provoke a great variety of meaning-making in different viewers. Yes, this meaning-making process needs some space and that’s why I always say no to guided tours or audio tours. I know from my own delivery and evaluation of many museum and art projects that people need a mix or choice of different modes and layers of interpretation, but not presented in an overwhelming muddle. These modes need to be carefully designed so that people access the right stimuli at the right time or place. These might include stimuli of visceral, sensory, ethereal, aesthetic or emotional responses and might use images or sounds as well as straightforward texts. I’m not against an approach that is open-ended and aesthetically spacious, enabling personal response, as this new curatorial vision aims for. However, the more critical dimensions of meaning-making are missing: the communal (i.e. dialogue and other views), contextual (i.e. background in time and place), cognitive (i.e. articulating a critical response) and adaptive (i.e. how learning from this might affect my values and actions).

Interpreting art is a combination of reading in your own meanings, and reading out meanings that can be decoded from the work itself or from an investigation of its context. The work of interpretation requires that combination of reading in and reading out, a dance between subjective and objective. If you remove any cues that help with this reading out, you have this odd, vague experience as if you’re only using half your brain. Eventually, you lose motivation in looking in a fully engaged manner and only seek out what gives you aesthetic pleasure. (Maybe this is a clever tactic to generate a rather floaty sensation which visitors will need to balance out by buying books in the shop or booking onto courses, to get more intellectual satisfaction? It is hard not to look at this new vision and ask questions about how removing interpretation must reduce staff costs and encourage visitors to pay for it.)

Many people need some of the cognitive and factual elements covered first before they can relax into sensory and emotional experiences. They want to know the basics, or to have a nagging question answered, or they simply need priming in how to approach a set of artworks.

I would have liked to enjoy that floaty sensation of visual pleasure but I was too distracted by feeling that people without access to smartphones or an Art History education were being insulted. I don’t insist that information should be always on the walls by the works but I do believe that a publicly funded museum has a duty to provide it somehow, freely, visibly and accessibly, whether by loaning portable devices, providing printed guides at a central point in each room, or by recruiting more informed and active interpretation staff.

Although unrelated to my main complaint about lacking interpretation, I have two other negatives to mention:

I was surprised at the extent of mentions of BP, given the contested nature of their sponsorship. I’ve never seen the brand so integrated into the display titles and signage. This seemed to connect, for me, with the removal of critical and contextual information around the collection. Tate Britain becomes a place of escape from having to think about the world and from the worst of the news, much of which can be traced back to the impacts of companies like BP (if you believe, as I do, that fossil fuels, climate change, ecocide and corporate greed are the underlying causes of emerging conflict, insecurity and inequality).

I was disturbed by the acoustics in the Simon Starling installation, Phantom Ride, which carried throughout the whole building. The sound near the screens was so terrible I didn’t watch for long so I can’t comment on their content. I saw babies very bothered by the noise and thought it must be terrible for people with hearing impairments. Given that visitors need to talk more with co-visitors and attendants to understand the work, the sonic ambience is a significant factor. Apparently, it’s there for a year.

I am picking up on the more negative aspects of the change but there were positives. Visually, I appreciated the experience and felt as if I was seeing the Tate fresh. The colour schemes are very subtle and calming. There is more space for more work and there were some unexpected combinations of works. In places, the flooring has been replaced to take heavier sculptures and this adds acoustic benefits.

A helpful Information person explained that from November there will be improved visitor information in the main rotunda and more complete displays, as well as some kind of device-based trail. It should be a much more positive experience then. I’m hoping by then Tate Britain will at least be signalling more concern for people who need more intellectual access, as well as for those who feel sickened by its associations with BP.

As Sanna Hirvonen (from Kiasma Museum in Finland) said in response to this post: “Letting art speak for itself means letting art speak to few. Museums should do more.”

3 responses to “Wordless at Tate Britain

  1. Charging £1 for the basic guide is actually a marketing ploy.

    If you add a small charge for the basic guide, it forces visitors to consider the value of what they’re paying for, rather than just automatically taking a free guide.

    This has been shown to increase sales of more expensive (£5-£10) guidebooks in the shop.

  2. Thank you very much for writing about this, Bridget.
    It makes me realise that I look at the art first, then I look for more information for the pieces that interest or puzzle me most, then I look at the picture again and have a further think about it.
    A purely chronological display is an interesting approach for a gallery to take. I appreciate the idea of seeing what is made at the same time and would like to see the unexpected juxtapositions – but, as you say, that is only one way of looking at the work, and perhaps it might work better if there were a touchscreen/ iPads within the room so you could see a work in another context eg styles, more work by the same artist over a lifetime, work produced by other who trained at the same art school, subjects…
    I would not expect the staff who sit in the rooms to know much about the work. In other galleries, I have heard attendants tell other people inaccurate information about art or artists on display, or tell visitors about their own subjective reactions to work rather than tell them facts.
    I have always thought that looking after a public collection of historic things includes providing interpretation in order to help people understand the things. Maybe that’s because I worked for years in a heritage organisation that had that as a statutory duty, but I do think it’s a moral duty on any public collection. Taking away the information from near the art also seems to diminish the role of curators. Since many use the term “curator” in other contexts these days, I think many will start to believe that the curators’ work is a lot easier than it is.
    I’ve always been inspired by the art in the Tate. Public art galleries/museums are one of the sources of material for creative inspiration for me, but I also expect and want them to be places where the curators are expert on the art in their collections and to make that expertise available so we can understand the art better. And I say that as one who has some expertise in art that is represented in theTate’s collections (I had the opportunity to research some of it before it went into their collection). I still want The Tate to be a place I learn more about art.

  3. Pingback: Wordless at Tate | Lexicography@The New Art Gallery, Walsall·

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