How to Center Marginalized People in Exhibit Text

The back entrance to Art of Native America

On my last visit to NYC to see my parents, my mom and I headed to the Met to check out the Art of Native America. I was particularly excited to see this exhibit because it is the first time that the Met has displayed Native American material culture as part of the canon of American fine art instead of as artifacts. There has been some controversy surrounding the exhibition’s consultation process with Native peoples, but it has also received positive responses. Acknowledging the serious issues with the exhibit, I still feel that Art of Native America provided me with a good case study of for talking about marginalized people in exhibit label copy.

The exhibit text centered Native Americans by asking them to tell their own stories. At the entrance to Art of Native America, five quotes by Native scholars were projected on the walls. The quotes provided a Native perspective on the relationship between art, Native American culture, and American history. One of the quotes was from my former professor Ned Blackhawk of the Western Shoshone, which was especially fun for me!

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Additionally, every label demarcating a new section of the exhibit included a paragraph by a native scholar. In the labels, scholars reflected on the experiences of Native Americans in each native cultural region of North America.

The exhibit text also centered Native Americans by emphasizing their agency as artists. When the curator did not know the name of an object’s creator, the object label explicitly mentioned that the maker was an artist. For example, the maker of the wooden bowl pictured below was identified as a “Wendat/Huron Artist.” By contrast, the labels in other exhibits simply name the culture that an object was from, for example, “French” or “Huron.” The word “artist” signaled to the visitor that the person who created the object brought their own unique aesthetic to the piece. By calling Native Americans “artists” the label emphasized that Native people created pieces of fine art on par with other American artists, not simply artifacts.

The exhibit text also highlighted Native agency by using the active voice, even when the name of an artist was unknown. When discussing a dress by a Wasco artist (pictured below), the object label stated, “the maker of this dress used the skins of two mountain sheep.” Most exhibits would use the passive voice, saying, “this dress was made out of the skins of two mountain sheep.” The passive voice erases the artist. The active voice emphasizes their personhood.

The labels further humanized the Native artists through educated supposition. When discussing the above dress, the label stated, “the artist likely made the dress for herself or a relative to wear on formal occasions.”  While the exact reasons why the artist made the dress are lost to history, imagining her motivations illustrates her agency and social context for the visitor.

Another way the exhibit centered Native Americans was by acknowledging the colonialist relationship between the Met and Native peoples. At the end of the exhibit, the Met recognized that it stands on Lenape ground.

Need the TLDR? At the Art of Native America, I learned the following best practices for centering marginalized people in exhibit text:

Want to employ best practices in your institution? Here are open source resources for centering marginalized people in exhibit text:

“Venus in Two Acts” by Saidiyah Hartman

While this article is not about exhibit development, it is the premier piece exploring the challenges and importance of making educated suppositions about the lives of marginalized peoples. As Hartman states, “I intended both to tell an impossible story and to amplify the impossibility of its telling.”

An Introduction to the Power of Labeling by Incluseum

The Power of Labeling is an online exhibit that “celebrates creativity, highlights the multifarious ways in which labels and labeling pervade our human experience, and pushes us to rethink the often artificial spatial segregation of art along the lines of dominant classification schemes such as aesthetics, style, medium, scale, identity, etc.”

Negotiating The Other: Museum Exhibition And The Construction Of Heritage In Marginalized Groups by Susan L.T. Ashley

Ashley provides a case study of The Underground Railroad: Next Stop Freedom exhibit. She examines “how the public make sense of the communication presented [in the exhibit] with special attention to ethnic and Black responses to the presentation, and their reactions to the intended and unintended messages presented by exhibit planners.”

Here are a few open source resources for general exhibit writing best practices:

Gallery text at the V&A

“These guidelines are a quick survey of the main principles of writing good gallery text. They have been written for V&A staff but may, of course, have a wider application.”

Excellence in Exhibition Label Writing Competition by the American Alliance of Museums

This is excellent source for general best practices in label writing. You can view the winning labels from 2009-2018.

Interpretation Matters by Dany Louise

“Have you ever been to an exhibition and found the text panels less helpful than you wanted? Interpretation Matters! was all about the written material found in galleries – the text panels on the walls, providing context for the work on show, and the printed booklets that describe the works or overall programme. Usually ‘under-the-radar,’ the aim of the project was to highlight this area of gallery practice.”

Me with a Parka made by artist Annie Oktokiyuk

Follow me on Twitter @441isabel  – I tweet a ton of great articles about museums all over the world!

Connect with me on Linkedin – I’m always looking to meet more awesome museum professionals.


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