Mike Pinnington, Tate Liverpool’s Content Editor, explains how they are empowering visitors to contribute and record their own interpretation. First published 25/11/16
In a previous article for Interpretation Matters, I spoke about how critically important I thought it was that interpretation texts and labels gives audiences the confidence to form opinions; good interpretation, like art itself, can empower as well as simply explain. After reading a gallery wall text that makes you think, you might feel inspired, even to the point of writing a blog, or – perhaps more likely – commenting on social media. But the moment having passed, maybe inspiration will too. But what if visitors could have their own say in the gallery, be an active participant rather than passively subject to the institutional voice?
When our Constellations series was launched in 2013 (in which artworks are grouped together based on their relationships and links), it sought to encourage ‘a fresh way of viewing and understanding artworks’ from the Tate collection. Complementing this new approach, the themes running through each constellation were used to generate word clouds, clusters of key words serving as a primer or snap-shot of what the viewer might find as they picked their way through a constellation’s works.
Because of its immediacy and visual nature, the word cloud seemed to us the place to initiate a ‘live’ conversation with our visitors, so that the final word (or words) didn’t have to belong to the institution. So we workshopped new word clouds with various audience groups, replacing the curatorial ones on our walls with those generated by the groups. Although a step in the right direction, with sessions led by a member of staff or artist educators, this still felt prescriptive. Now, corresponding with the launch of a pair of new constellations, a new digital interactive word cloud has been installed in a display triggered by an L.S. Lowry work, so that we can hear directly from our audience rather than via a curatorial mediator.
The Lowry display brings together works by artists from the first years of the twentieth century to the present day, and includes works by artists such as Mondrian and Braque to Delaunay and Pissarro. It explores what it means to be a painter (or a sculptor, or a photographer) ‘of modern life’. Reflecting this, the grouping’s word cloud contains words such as labour, class, industry, the city and realism.
What if though, on your own journey through the works, other words occur – or even other narratives entirely? Do they deserve a place in the cloud or not? By extension, should the visitor, the so-called ‘non-expert’, have the opportunity for their voice to be heard in the gallery?
Unequivocally, we think they do. To facilitate this, we have developed our new interactive “digital word cloud”. How does it work? The main thing for us was to make the process as easy as possible, putting as few barriers between the audience and the resource as possible. The introductory text for the constellation is displayed on one of a pair of monitors, rather than in vinyl on the wall as is traditional, and contains instructions on how to input new words. Beneath this is another monitor which carries the word cloud. New words can be input three at a time from smartphones and tablets, using a web form accessible via a link. We know that not all of our visitors will have such a device, so we have also installed an iPad specifically for use with the cloud. We also know that not everyone is confident with new technologies, so our visitor assistants are available to help if people should need them. We really want the resource to be as accessible and easy to use by as many visitors as possible.
The new digital cloud acts exactly as the original static clouds, so the traits that are most common appear larger. Now, the bigger, bolder words are those that have been input with greater frequency. The main difference is that the content of the cloud is now potentially much more dynamic and, theoretically at least, ever changing. Up to 28 words can be displayed at any one time, and the last three words input will always be displayed, meaning everybody that takes the time to engage is rewarded by seeing their words arrive, seconds later, in the cloud.
As new words arrive, it inevitably means that older ones might be displaced and apart from restrictions around profanity, the institution has little control over this new content. Eventually, we hope that our original words will be replaced entirely, making it necessary for us to revisit our in-house wall text with the aim of acknowledging the new words – and therefore new links identified by visitors – that make up the constellation. We hope too that, just like the Constellations displays themselves, this interactive word cloud will offer fresh ways of thinking about artists, artworks, and the links between them, while also encouraging a meaningful dialogue with our visitors.