Monday, March 18, 2013

Review Redux: A Picture is Worth a Thousand GOOD Words

Yesterday I posted a review of a recent visit to the New Britain Museum of American Art. I later remembered that I had written a similar review in September 2009, in which I expressed some of the same concerns. Here it is, retrieved from the archives:

A few weeks ago, my husband and I treated ourselves to an afternoon at the New Britain Museum of American Art, a very fine museum near our home. Two current exhibits were of interest, including a collection works from the Hudson River School, which featured several items on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We enjoyed seeing many familiar paintings and some that were new to us.
We also enjoyed seeing selections from the Christopher Hyland Collection of Photography, presented in an exhibit called By Way of These Eyes: The Sublime, Exotic and Familiar. The museum described this show as “work of some of the most diverse and riveting contemporary American photographers.” And the work was, indeed, diverse and riveting, and of exceptionally high quality.

As a program annotator, and as an information specialist, I always take special interest in the written descriptions that are posted next to the art works in most museums. I appreciate the research and careful work that is invested in preparing these descriptions. I love to know every detail about the art works, and I tend to read every word of every description, shifting back and forth between text and image as I take in what the writer is offering. In fact, I would venture to guess that some people might actually spend more time reading a description than viewing the work it describes. It can take a few minutes to read each description, especially those that are several paragraphs long.

During our progress through the photography exhibit, I was repeatedly distracted by poorly-written (or poorly-edited) descriptions which used incorrect grammar, displayed spelling errors, lacked proper punctuation and, in some cases, offered inaccurate information.

For example, the museum promoted the photography exhibit as presenting works of contemporary photographers. To my mind, contemporary means alive now, or only recently deceased, but certainly contemporary with our time. And yes, most of the artists represented in this exhibit are living, or lived most of their lives during the past fifty years. However, I would not characterize Edward Steichen (1879-1923), whose work is included in this exhibit, as contemporary, since he was born 130 years ago and has been dead for 86 years! He was not included as an archetype, but as one of the contemporary artists.

And in the descriptive cards that were posted next to each work, there were numerous errors that made me wonder who, if anyone, had reviewed the text before it was printed. A photo that showed leaves floating in the water was described as having floating twigs. One description referred to a seated figure, when the photo contained no seated figures at all. One date was off by a thousand years. These are just a few of the cases I can recall now, weeks later; there were too many to remember them all. And if the texts contained errors that are evident to a layperson such as me, what other technical, historical, or other errors might have been there?

Now, I can understand that typos happen – they happen to me all the time.

But is there no proofreader at the museum, no editor, no supervisor, no one to check that these very prominent elements of the exhibit – the textual portions – are correct? Presumably, the error-laden description cards have been in place since the exhibit opened on June 6. Has no one else noticed?

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