DEA BIRKETT Who do you think you’re talking to?
Dea Birkett takes the British Museum to task over its object labels, and who it thinks will read them
Last month #AskaCurator happened, the annual day on which anyone can tweet a question to a curator. At 10.16am, the Keeper of Asia at the British Museum started answering tweets about interpretation.
How do you go about designing exhibition labels and information that are accessible to a wider range of people? #AskaCurator
Jane, Keeper of Asia: Curators write the labels based on their specialist knowledge and they are edited by our Interpretation departments...
...We aim to be understandable by 16 year olds. Sometimes Asian names can be confusing, so we have to be careful about using too many.
Within moments I’d had texts asking if I’d seen these tweets. #AskaCurator is designed to open that tantalising door and take us behind the decision-making scenes in a museum. This British Museum tweet did just that. We’d been allowed to peek through the keyhole into the assumptions of our great museums and, rather than finding knowledge and wonder, discovered prejudice and misunderstanding. The response on Twitter was immediate and furious. How could a great cultural institution say this?
How? It’s unimaginable that an Asian person, or someone of Asian descent, would have called Asian names “confusing”. A name isn’t confusing if it’s yours, your parents’, your cousin’s, your uncle’s. So, confusing to whom exactly? Who is the imagined 16-year-old visitor? Not Asian.
I have long argued that language is an access issue. If you riddle your labels with unnecessarily obscure language, it’s equivalent to removing your ramp. It means many people won’t be able to access your collection.
But language is also a diversity issue. You always write from a viewpoint. And if that viewpoint is always the same – a white, non-disabled, middle-class museum sector – then the museum won’t be accepting of diverse staff or welcome diverse visitors.
Let’s look at some really confusing names. Luciano Pavarotti – would the museum have a problem with that? And as for length, how would they abbreviate Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Robert Baden-Powell or Camilla Parker- Bowles? As the Twitter spat went on, even the title of the Tweeter began to be questioned. Keeper of Asia? Did that come from a Victorian novel?
But how did the British Museum respond? At 11.48am they tweeted they were sorry “for any offence caused” – not for what they said. The museum then explained why they had to take the Asian-names-too-confusing approach. “Label text to any object is necessarily limited and we try to tell the object’s story ... We are not always able to re ect the complexity of different names”. Oh – I see. They weren’t being offensive at all. It’s just that we don’t properly understand the challenges of writing museum text. Quite rightly, the vast majority found this explanation unacceptable. The Twitter debate continued and became a “Moment” – that’s a highlight of the day due to the large number of comments on it. It was the only #AskaCurator thread that did so.
So did the British Museum finally say that it was wrong and it’d look at how a national institution was able to say something like that? That it would learn? No. It issued a second statement. “For any object in the museum we try to make the label as clear as possible, to visitors of all origins, within a tight word limit”. Again, it was our problem. We just don’t understand how museums work.
But we do. And we recognise prejudice when we see it. We also recognise that when museums refuse to examine their own assumptions, they damage not only themselves but the reputation and standing of the sector as a whole.
The fabulous #AskaCurator may not have intended to reveal this aspect of curatorial work. But in doing so, it has at least given a public platform for response. We know these attitudes are there – they’re just kept hidden in the stores along with other obsolete and no longer interesting objects. They need to be brought out into the light, dusted down, examined, then dumped. Then we need to employ a rainbow of voices writing museum stories and labels, so none of us are confused at all.
But it’s not only museums. That same September week, a press release went out about “£400K research project launched to help theatres diversify audiences”. There was a picture of the six researchers. They were all white.
Dea Birkett is Co-Director of Text Workshop www.textworkshop.co.uk www.deabirkett.com