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What’s in a Label?

Botanical Garden Label

A recent morning in the succulents and cactus exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden turned up an unusual label (see image: right). This label left me thinking, not about the euphorbia plant, but about

Students at the Chin Exhibition

the humans behind these strange, dazzling cactus displays; horticulture as a field that has nurtured women as scientists, and how much in an endangered climate, their knowledge of adaptation and evolution will matter.

Over time, that same small sign set me to thinking about the enormous power of labels. I remembered a moment at the Queens Museum where middle school students spent time in an exhibit of Mel Chin’s eclectic work. At the instigation of their teaching artist, Douglas Paulson, they used their observations to fuel an independent gallery guide, composed of haiku poems that they challenged visitors to match to individual works in the show (see image: above). Copies of that guide, on offer at the entrance to the exhibition, telegraphed any number of messages not always loudly broadcast in fine art museums:

  • Look, don’t scan.
  • Immerse yourself in a world of images.
  • Learn what a 12-year old has to teach you about seeing.

Then, I read about the re-labeling of the dioramas in the Great Hall at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, specifically the one that portrays a meeting between Oratamin (Oratam), sachem or chief of the Hackensack tribe and Peter Stuyvesant. The display, as originally created, contains many misrepresentations of indigenous people: portraying them in loincloths when they would have worn full fur robes as leaders of their people, depicting the Lenape women standing with downcast eyes on the margins of the event when, in fact, they were often participants and leaders. Rather than closing or re-making the diorama, the Museum worked for a year with Bradley Pecore, a visual historian of Menominee and Stockbridge Munsee descent, to develop ten different labels on the front glass of the diorama (see image: below). Each one asks visitors to look closely and question the assumptions that fueled the original representation and shaped the American public’s understanding of Indigenous people.

Labels on the Front Glass of the Diorama

I now see labels as tiny transmitters, beaming out: What matters? Did you ever think about this? What shapes the way you look and understand? Taking a step back, it is making me reconsider the countless small, but powerful, ways in which cultural institutions can fulfill their responsibility to provoke thought and build humanity:

  • What goes in actors’ or dancers’ biographies in playbills?
  • What beyond the performance history of a piece of music belongs in program notes?
  • Can audio tours offer visitors contrasting histories or analyses of a painting?
  • Are docents at historic sites trained to report facts or can they also entertain discussions about what is and isn’t on display?
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