Interpretation in museums and galleries can often be a matter of taste: some visitors prefer to have an unmediated experience between themselves and the artworks, and others expect and appreciate information in a variety of formats. Much has been written on the perceived opposition of ‘experience’ versus ‘interpretation’, but if handled sensitively the two should be united like a happy marriage.

Nothing can replace the immediacy of standing before an artwork and looking (or using the other senses, if appropriate). Interpretation should never tell us what to see, think, or feel, but instead provide the background or contextual facts that enable the viewer to come to their own conclusion about what they are seeing or experiencing.

At Pallant House Gallery we take the approach of providing layers of written interpretation: maps, wall-texts, short labels and long-labels. These are complemented by a variety of relatively low-technology interpretation including themed tours for adults and school groups, children’s activity trails and worksheets, artwork in focus talks, workshops and lectures on artists, and themes in the collections and exhibitions – and occasionally special audio-tours.

Visitors are given a map to help them navigate the architectural mix of Pallant House. We are an 18th century Queen Anne townhouse with domestically scaled rooms, with a larger contemporary extension that opened in 2006. The approach to interpretation is the same throughout so that the visitor’s experience feels as seamless as the transition between the two buildings.

Connecting themes

The permanent collection displays of 20th-century British and international modern art are organised broadly chronologically, exploring different themes in each room, but with contemporary interventions into architectural features such as the carved staircase and fireplaces so that it offers more than a ‘heritage house experience’.

Within each room display there is an introductory wall panel of about 200 words in a large font, which explains the theme of the display, and its historic or artistic context. Even if the visitor does not read any other interpretation, in theory this text should help them understand the connecting theme or idea behind the artworks on display in that room.

We have a rich mix of historic, modern and contemporary elements at Pallant House. There are all kinds of narratives that could be explored, but the starting point is to try to answer the questions of Who? Where? What? Why? How? The first text the visitor encounters outside Room One gives an overview of the ‘collection of collections’ and how it was formed: the generosity of private collectors that have donated their works.

The next explains the history of the 18th-century house and the extraordinary story of the man who built it; subsequent wall texts relate to the theme of the different room displays. All the artworks in our permanent collection are accompanied by short labels that clearly set out standard basic information: the artist’s name and life dates, the title and creation date of the artwork, the medium and the credit line for the donor or acquisition method.

The labels are presented relatively close to the artwork to avoid confusion about which label relates to which artwork, so both can be seen at the same time. Our labels and wall-texts are designed by our in-house graphic designer, and use a font called Foundry Sterling, a modern san serif, chosen for its clarity and readability. The letterforms were designed with special attention to proportion and purity of form. We feel it is elegant with a ‘quintessentially English feel’ which seems appropriate for a Modern British art gallery.

During our redevelopment project in 2003–2006 we created an Access Advisory Group. This group includes participants that are wheelchair users and have visual impairments, and provides feedback on everything from the design of the disabled toilets to the font sizes of labels and the height at which they are displayed – to enable both wheelchair users and the average height visitor to comfortably read the labelling.

The labels are printed on low-reflective laminate foam card, and fixed either directly to the walls, or onto special Plexiglas holders. In temporary exhibitions in the new wing galleries we tend to use decal lettering and vinyl wall-texts applied directly onto the walls.

Contextual information

Items such as pieces of historic furniture do not have individual labels on the basis that to label every chair would be intrusive to the experience of a ‘domestic’ space and unnecessary, when information can be obtained from the voluntary room stewards around the gallery who are equipped with files with detailed information on such items. However, a considerable proportion of artworks also have additional labels with longer texts of up to about 80 words to provide more contextual information about the artwork. Our aim with the long labels is that anyone from the age of 12 upwards should be able to read and understand the language used in the label.

With displays of modern and contemporary art it is particularly important to provide a ‘way in’ to avoid visitors feeling alienated by artworks that they do not immediately understand, which can be made worse by impenetrable texts using ‘jargon’. The texts are usually written by myself or our Assistant Curator, Katy Norris, but we have also worked with others to provide different voices in the gallery displays.

In 2009 we launched the Step Up project to enable five non-traditional artists to work with a researcher and gallery staff to develop four workshop packs, a trail of labels, and to deliver workshops during the award-winning Outside In exhibition, featuring work by artists on the margins. In 2010 and 2011 this continued with 15 non-traditional artists receiving training in leading workshops and developing an audio-trail.

We believe that good interpretation is a key part of helping visitors to engage with modern and contemporary art, to help them understand the often complex ideas behind it, and hopefully inspire them to learn more. Generally at Pallant House Gallery we receive very positive feedback about our interpretation and labelling, so I hope that it is achieving these outcomes!

Simon Martin is the director of Pallant House gallery, Chichester

This article appears in The Interpretation Matters Handbook by Dany Louise (Blackdog Publishing, £15).

This 96-page book includes interviews and features by artists such as Richard Wilson, David Blandy and Emily Speed; former Tate Britain director Penelope Curtis; and renowned curators Lewis Biggs, Omar Kholeif and Gerardo Mosquera. 

Email [email protected] to order a copy of the book.
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