Exhibition labels are often overlooked and underused. We ignore these small, strategically positioned placards for any number of reasons. “It’s too long to bother reading”; “It doesn’t say anything I’m interested in”; “It’s written in a funny language” — we all can be guilty of situational bouts of laziness, apathy, and otherness. (Sometimes, we’re so bored by what is on display, we don’t even look for a label! Oh well…) But I strongly believe that observant patrons of sites of exhibition — be it a museum, gallery, historic site, zoo, etc. — have a more gainful experience when they read what is in front of them. Title, maker, date, composition, provenance — if there’s a label, be sure to find any combination of these key bits of information.
I’m always interested to know how a thing got to be where it is. I care about the facts of creation (origin) as much as current state of ownership (source, steward), and yes, all of the history in between (provenance). I’m looking at a thing: Did the thing come from a museum’s permanent collection, squirreled away in a vast storage facility, only now exhibited for the first time?; Has a generous private lender with a dank attic full of priceless things decided to share his collection?; Was there a major discovery, anniversary, auction, or eruption of creativity in things that has made this one available, accessible, and of timely significance? In effect, this information defines the relationship between myself — patron and viewer — and the thing I’m viewing.
I recently discovered Vastari.com, an independent platform facilitating direct contact between collectors and museums. Vastari is a private networking tool that allows owners of cultural artifacts and accredited museum curators to find each other for the purpose of exhibition. Collectors can search a database of proposals tailored to objects they hold and are offering to exhibit, while curators can search according to types of objects that complete the narrative of a planned exhibition. The site is privately funded and non-partisan, meaning Vastari will not judge or exclude objects based on quality and connection. The only requisite is that collectors contribute “museum-worthy” objects, identified as being:
- One of a kind or limited edition;
- Culturally significant, or representative of the era from which it is from
- Possessing a concrete provenance
- Accompanied by an authenticity certificate by an authorized institution or mentioned in correspondence of the time
- Owned indisputable by you.
I’m interested in Vastari as it relates to exhibition labels and the transparency I seek in knowing an object’s provenance. I’ll find an object has come from an anonymous private collection, only to be left wondering who is the collector and from where s/he got it. As a patron of culture, there’s nothing more frustrating than the aura of Who. Within the bounds of legal title and security, I would like to know who was responsible for once holding and now sharing an object. If I can see the curator’s name, why not also the lender’s? Though not all cultural philanthropists seek to attach their name to a piece of art or artifact (let alone an entire gallery), I get the sense that many do. Vastari increases the opportunity for private individuals to share their collections and their name with the world. Likewise, curators are better able to access previuosly unknown collectors and collections. The connection between curator and collector, patron and exhibition, is made stronger when these holes are filled. If used ethically and with proper accreditation, Vastari provides a long-term solution to lending agreements and exhibition development.