A Theory on Museum LabelsThe relationship between the size of an art piece in a museum and the time spent reading its label.
I have noticed something peculiar in all my years of visiting art museums. There is an understated yet undeniable relationship between the visitor, the art piece, and the label. Yes, the identifying label that ubiquitously hangs to the side of every artwork.
Some visitors go to the label first then step back and glance at the artwork, while others absorb the artwork first and then dive into the label. It’s an obligatory dance performed instinctively and subconsciously. It really does not matter what order this dance is performed in, it nevertheless involves always looking at both. It’s almost like a basic rhythm, art piece, label, art piece label, art piece label.
I find this fascinating because I have experienced and observed that the visitor will inevitably fall into an almost predictable pattern, and it usually involves spending more time reading the label than looking at the actual art piece.
Because of this, I have carefully observed ‘visitors’ passing through museums, thrown out the outlier extremes, and used the remaining average to formulate an actual mathematical formula that aims to demonstrate this theory.
First things first, let me clarify that I’m not suggesting a formula for weighing the value of an artwork. I am not trying to categorize the complexity of aesthetics, and I am certainly not taking a position on the definition of beauty (although Plato’s is wrong), I am simply making an observation on the behavior of visitors walking through a museum looking at art and reading labels.
The data has been compiled by my own observations. I have not been able to find any published data on the relationship between time spent reading a label and time spent looking at the corresponding artwork. Over the years I have been to the Prado, the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Centre Pompidou, the Borghese Gallery, Vatican Museum, National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome, the Uffizi, Castelvecchio in Verona, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, MOMA, the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, the Whitney (new and old), the Frick Collection and so on. I’m leaving out plenty, the point is I’ve had a chance to observe this theory a bit everywhere.
Occasionally there is a visitor walking around with a notebook and taking an unusually long amount of time inspecting and gazing at every square inch of the artwork. There is also the reluctant visitor that got ‘dragged’ to the museum and is just doing time till they can leave. Both these cases I’m excluding from my observations, they are the outliers.
However, the majority of the people, the meat of the bell curve, all seemed to behave in more or less the same manner. They did the dance, art piece, label, art piece label, art piece label. For the purposes of full disclosure, I count myself as being smack in the middle of that bell curve.
It became apparent that once an artwork exceeded a certain size, the label would take on more importance, whereas if the artwork were of a modest size, the artwork itself would get more eyeball time. Hence the need to try and codify this phenomenon.
Not being a mathematician, quite the opposite really, I enlisted the help of a bright theoretical mathematician at MIT. I carefully explained my observations to him, and he was able to translate it into the following:
The ratio of time spent on the art versus the description decreases with the size and complexity of the art and increases with the expertise of the viewer. In other words, more time is spent on the description and less on the art when the art is large and complicated, and the viewer is uninformed.
ta is the time spent on the art.
td is the time spent on the label.
sa is the size (area) of the art.
ca is the complexity of the art.
ev is the expertise of the viewer.
The complexity variable
Complexity in art is hard to define and is the most subjective and difficult variable to assign, but it is important to establish for the formula to work. Are we talking visual complexity or subject complexity? Would you say a Rothko is complex? Is a Pollock complex or just confusing? How about a classical painting, like a Botticelli or Canaletto? For the sake of minimizing the variables here, I’m going with a rather loose visual complexity of the form as perceived by the visitor (amount of visual information to process) as opposed to subject complexity: the complexity of an artistic form as agreed upon by social consensus, such as the art community or society as a whole*.
So, on a scale from one to ten, one represents minimal visual information, like a Rothko while ten represents maximum visual information like a Pollock. Again, for the purpose of full disclosure, I much prefer a Rothko. Complexity in this sense is just a graphic assessment.
The expertise variable
This variable is a bit easier to establish. It is less objective. Either you know about art, past and current, or you do not. On a scale of one to ten, one would have you as not knowing about art at all, you’ve heard of the Renaissance, but you might think it is a city in Italy. Ten would have you as a scholar of art, not only do you know all of art history, but you might have written a book or two on the subject.
I would assume most of us would consider ourselves a solid five.
The formula states, explained in English, that the larger the artwork is, the less time an average observer spends looking at it and more time is invested in reading the label.
So next time you find yourself in a museum, pay attention to the artwork/label relationship for yourself and observes others doing the same, and see if this theory holds any water.
New York, NY July 2021
Written by Paolo Bertolotti, Design Director at bbcreative
Math by by Paolo M Bertolotti, PhD candidate at MIT
*excerpt from: Artistic Forms and Complexity, by Jean Pierre Boon, 2010