I spent today at the Ohio Historical Society, in their library and archive. It’s a lovely reading room, with skylights, and the staff has been amazing.
During my lunch break, I took the opportunity to wander a bit among the collection near the main staircase. Just off the central area, flanking what appears to be a pull-down screen presentation space, are 6 cases. The cases have a variety of objects all of which look to me to be American decorative arts, presumably from the history of Ohio. Every case has a label across the top, declaring them Treasures from the Name Of Person Collection (I don’t remember the name). There are no labels in any of the cases.
I felt the cases need labels for the object. There was no context, no presentation. A Windsor chair with some nice teawares, paintings, and other household goods. Some silver, a portrait, a vase. How do they relate? Why did they go into a case together? What is the collection, and why were these given to the museum? Yes, this information might be available on the website, but that only helps very inquisitive people with smartphones.
As I was thinking these, staring at a case of anonymous objects, the part of my brain which was still at work kicked in. I wondered about the Person who Donated. Donors can attach strings to their donations: things must be on display, or not. Some museums can decide not to accept the conditions, but sometimes it’s hard to refuse. I wondered if the donor wanted approval for label text, or if there was too much disagreement about how and what to write. One of the dangers of displaying everything or anything you receive as a donation is that the provenance you discover by research may not be what the owner thought they knew.
Writing label text is a difficult art. You have to capture all the important information without going on too long, convey it all in a way that is both coherent and yet comprehensible to all ages. It can be time-consuming, but it is important.
The cases, with their nameless, unidentified objects, frustrate me. I don’t know the reason, or reasons, why the objects have no labels; I don’t think the reasons matter as much as the need to tell the stories of these objects – and the people who interacted with them.