Header image final 2

Collections access officer and Museology student Hannah Niblett discusses a different approach to words at Tate Liverpool. Do “word clouds” give access to more people, rather than deeper access to a few?


As an art lover, collections access officer and museology student, I’m particularly interested in the relationship between works of art and the words we use to describe them. The discourse around art has become pretty self-referential and uncritical, and if you don’t have the internal dictionary to translate terms such as ‘readymade’, ‘abjection’ or ‘gestalt’ you’ll not only struggle to find meaning in works of art, you’ll feel excluded from the art world as a whole. It’s no wonder people say modern art galleries ‘just aren’t for me’.

The current collection display at Tate Britain, BP Walk through British Art tries to deal with this, largely by removing written interpretation from the gallery – letting the art speak directly to the audience. But as Bridget McKenzie wrote for Interpretation Matters, this doesn’t really solve the problem of exclusion. We may not want to be told what to think, but most of us at least need a way in, a few clues to base our own interpretation on.

Tate Liverpool proposes a new solution to this problem in the collection displays that opened this summer: DLA Piper Series: Constellations. The premise is an idea of art history as non-linear, grouping works of art from across the 20th Century in thematic ‘constellations’. As the publicity describes, it’s ‘a fresh way of viewing and understanding artworks through correspondences rather than chronological narrative.’ The interpretation strategy is also interesting. In addition to some extensive but fairly standard text panels and labels, they’ve introduced something we recognise from the digital world: tags and word clouds.

HN Tate Liverpool HN Tate Liverpool 2










Assistant Curator Eleanor Clayton explained the thinking behind the word clouds:

It is important that people feel that they can choose how they engage with the art – some people may not want to read a lot of text and instead prefer to focus on their interaction with the artwork. The word clouds emphasise these options as you can simply read the word clouds and associated words next to each work to give suggestions of connections, which the viewer can then elaborate on or extrapolate from their own perspective and experience.”

Eleanor’s emphasis on choice is key to this strategy and clearly draws inspiration from how content works on the web. In the virtual world metadata makes content highly accessible and user-friendly. As readers, we aren’t expected to – or expected to want to – read the entire contents of a website. Tags allow us to search out content that is of interest to us, to navigate information in a dynamic way and compile personalised understanding.

As metadata the word clouds in Constellations float above the more detailed narrative interpretation – a layer of meta-interpretation. The visual nature of the word cloud gives you an immediate feel for the themes you’re dealing with; the ideas that are prominent, those that are more peripheral. And these carefully chosen words act as interpretive portals; a way in to the individual artworks, from which you can either ‘elaborate and extrapolate’ your own meaning, or anchor your understanding of the longer interpretive text.

This approach really worked for me. Using the word clouds to navigate around the displays, I found myself traversing the exhibition space, cross-referencing different pieces, going off on intellectual tangents and having loads of those sparky little moments when you make complex ideas fit together. Feeling smug on the train home I wrote a short, enthusiastic piece for our blog at the Institute for Cultural Practice.

I do stand by this enthusiasm, but on my second visit I developed the same discomfort Bridget McKenzie reported at Tate Britain: As someone who is already fairly confident in ‘joining the dots’ between works of 20th century art, was I getting something out of the experience that some others around me weren’t?

To some extent the word clouds approach still relies on the viewer having that internal dictionary of art historical terms. Yes, it brings to the surface language that is used uncritically elsewhere – ‘Abstraction’ ‘Performativity’ ‘Installation’ ‘Flux’ – but does simply reorganising the information in this way make it more accessible? As in, give access to more people, rather than deeper access to a few?

This second visit was with a friend who works in the cultural sector but doesn’t have a specific visual arts background. She relied more on the labels and text panels and found that, although the word clouds seemed to be offering ways in, some of the narrative interpretation just put up new barriers. She asked whether I understood the label for Julius Koller’s Continuation/Stoop (Universal-Cultural Futurological Operation):

Koller has defined his work as a sort of ‘anti-academicism’. The photographs show a door constructed from two glass panels, the lower of which has been removed. The absurdity of the artist’s pose as he stoops to step through the lower half of the door recalls Koller’s early enthusiasm for Dada. The second part of the title is one of Koller’s many variations on the initials UFO. Koller’s work aims at a constant questioning of the world and the cultural context, opening up possibilities for utopias in unexpected places.”

I didn’t. There are a lot of unexplained ideas here that aren’t clarified by the two tags ‘Infinite permutations’ and ‘Entropy’. We went back through this constellation, which centres on Robert Morris’ Untitled 1965/71, and managed to cobble together something about the interface with the body as providing ‘infinite permutations’ and a sort of ‘entropy’ as the body wears down the environment and vice-versa. But even with an above average amount of cultural literacy between us this was hard work, and not especially satisfying.

On the flip side, a really good example of demystifying terms was in the same constellation:

“Morris insisted that … forms should ‘create strong gestalt sensations’ – ‘gestalts’ being patterns or configurations in which the whole has a significance greater than, and different from, the sum of its parts taken individually. Untitled 1965/71 is a perfect example of gestalt: its four elements together produce complex interactions with the environment in which they are placed and the spectator who walks between them, whilst retaining their simple identity.”

Brilliant! A new definition for my internal dictionary.

I’m disappointed that my idea, from my original post, that Constellations offers an art historical primer for less well interpreted exhibitions (such as Walk through British Art) is only partially accurate.  If you aren’t already familiar with the terminology you can’t rely on the narrative interpretation to help you, and it takes work to extrapolate backwards from the works of art to create your own definitions. It’s possible, and can be a lot of fun if you’re that way inclined, but I don’t see this being much help to families with young children, or visitors who are already uncertain or sceptical about modern art.

Nonetheless, I think there is a lot to be applauded in this approach. Family activities have included workshops to make your own ‘constellation’, helping younger visitors explore the idea of non-linear connections. Blogs and online reviews about the display show that this reorganisation of art history is engaging and empowering in and of itself.  And with Keywords opening in 2014, it seems Tate Liverpool are keen to further explore this idea of carefully chosen words as access points, balancing the need for explanation with opportunities for personal meaning making in the gallery.


Follow Hannah Nibblett on twitter: @HLN82