One Practical Way to Make Art Museum Exhibitions More Accessible

I have on my desk two books. Both of them are exhibition catalogues devoted to Caravaggio. In Spring 1951, the exhibition which marked the start of Caravaggio’s apotheosis was held in Milan. That exhibition was memorialized in a catalogue the size of a large paperback book, withe black and white images, a short introduction by the famous Italian writer Roberto Longhi, and brief notes on the individual works. And at the end of this little catalogue are advertisements for Italian banks, liquors, and typewriters. In 1985, when Caravaggio’s reputation was secure, the Metropolitan Museum of Art conducted a show “The Age of Caravaggio.” This catalogue is much larger and longer. It has many color plates and, since so much has been written about Caravaggio, the textual apparatus was much more elaborate. Because he has become so famous, some of the paintings exhibited in Milan no longer were allowed to travel to New York. But now there were no advertisements.

Usually histories of the art museum discuss the successive directors, additions to the collection, and expansions of the architecture. We learn how these institutions are governed, what they display and the changing setting for their displays. The history of the exhibition catalogue, also an important part of this story, has been less examined. A private collection doesn’t have to have a catalogue. (But once in New Zealand when I joked that a grand private collector deserved a catalogue, she gave me hers.) The collector can display whatever he or she desires. But we expect a catalogue for a public collection, because the presence of art testifies to a certain consensus about its value. And the catalogue is a way of permanently documenting a temporary exhibition. Catalogues show that the visual art displayed is a subject for serious research. And in some cases, but not in all, a catalogue is essential to understanding the show. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, at “The Tale of Genji. A Japanese Classic Illuminated”, in 2019, unless you were familiar with that extremely long novel, the meaning of many images was elusive. And if you didn’t know the history of Islamic Africa, understanding the objects in that museum’s more recent “Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara” required the catalogue. In general, then, the less you know about the artifacts on display, the more you need the catalogue. And since almost no one knows all of the cultures represented in our multicultural world museums, even scholars and reviewers have a real importance to this documentation. Sometimes also exhibitions of familiar art are driven by the catalogue analysis. To take another example from the Metropolitan, the current exhibition “Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition” would be puzzling if you didn’t have access to the catalogue.

As the comparison of my two examples of Caravaggio-catalogues demonstrates, this documentation has become steadily more weighty. Often catalogues are so massive that it’s best to pick them up only after you exit, so as not to have to carry them through the exhibition. But of course, it’s useful to have them in hand when you are in the show. A large exhibition curated by Okwei Enwezor, “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965” at Munich’s Haus der Kunst, adapted a smart solution to this dilemma. Two catalogues were provided, a light document to carry through the show and a full, very heavy book, which you could lug home.

Whether the museum has a temporary exhibition contemporary American paintings, Chinese old master art or Japanese fashions, you can expect to find in the gift shop stacks of lavish exhibition catalogues. Without a catalogue, one feels that an exhibition is not really an exhibition. I am told that these museum catalogues sell. And I imagine that the donors appreciate this publication. Although catalogues generally are relatively expensive, fifty dollars or more, the acknowledgments reveal that these books require a publication grant. Where most scholarly art historical writing has a very small market, usually just specialists and the larger research libraries, many museum visitors purchase catalogues to take home as souvenirs. But I suspect that these publications are not much read because they are academic publications. In saying I, a former academic!, am not being critical, but merely descriptive. A newspaper review is for the larger public, while an academic essay, written by a specialist speaking to the other specialists, is a contribution to research. At least, this description applies to catalogue essays for most historical shows. Exhibition catalogues for contemporary exhibitions are a different story, Apart from including a checklist of the artists shown, with brief biographical summaries, one finds essays which have no obvious intimate relation to the art at hand. Frequently these are political commentaries, often (at least in the heyday of theory in the visual arts) written in esoteric artspeak.

Because we are accustomed to museum catalogues, we take them for granted. And art galleries too, if they are prosperous, often publish exhibition catalogues, which make good gifts for potential collectors. You can chart the art market economy by observing when these catalogues become more lavish. As a reviewer, I love catalogues, because they provide the written and visual information necessary for my reviews. And almost always, museums are happy to gift them to reviewers.(Once when a major museum tried to sell me their catalogue at a discount, I assumed that they were in financial trouble.) Of course, it’s flattering to get this modest recognition for reviewing, which is a very poorly paid activity.

As I said, I myself find these catalogues extremely useful. But if I could make one change in the art museum I would ask that they rethink this resource. Many visitors cannot easily afford these catalogues. Museum catalogues could be much briefer and so less expensive and more accessible. More exactly, why not supplement the expensive catalogues with an inexpensive short handout written in accessible prose? Some years ago the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh printed one catalogue as a newspaper, and gave it away. That could be a good model. For a long time, public art museums have worked hard to make themselves more accessible. The Louvre originally was a royal palace, and many older museums, if not palaces, chose traditional palatial architecture, which suited the display of art by and for privileged white males. Nowadays, however, museums everywhere have adopted populist ways of thinking. They seek staff and visitors from every branch of the community. And they aim to display art from every visual culture, including groups that were traditionally marginalized or ignored. The recently much discussed presentations of Black artists in the public art museum is just the latest (important!) stage in this long process. One feature, only, of the traditional museum survives: the exhibition catalogue. The change I am advocating would, I think, be a welcome political development, especially when the documentation provided was essential for understanding the exhibition. Perhaps making the catalogue accessible as a PDF would be one way to go.

In a number of reviews, I have noted this problem just in passing. But, I confess, my thinking about this issue only came to a head recently when I reviewed “Bámigbóyè: A Master Sculptor of the Yorùbá Tradition” at the Yale University Art Museum. This important display was accompanied by a lavish catalogue, with scholarly essays by six authors. The Yorùbá art employed elaborate carvings employed in religious dancing ceremonies. But even after close reading of the exhibition catalogue, many obvious visual details were still puzzling. The Yale Museum did a great job presenting this exhibition and producing the catalogue. And so, only a small amount of addition labor would be necessary to make the show more accessible.

Museum studies devotes considerable attention to biographies of directors and curators, and the architectural history of museums. But so far as I can tell, there has not been a great deal of discussion of exhibition catalogues. That, I think, is because they are so familiar. My present argument, then, is that they deserve real critical attention. Museum audiences would benefit considerably from the change that I propose. When the museum shop sells expensive replicas of works in the collection, you don’t need to purchase them. But if you don’t have full information about the exhibition, then you may really miss something. Why exclude the many visitors who cannot afford the catalogues from the pleasures of learning about art? The inexpensive change I envisage would not just produce real benefits, but would be politically savvy as well.

Our practical discussion leads to a larger question within aesthetic theory: how much do you need to know about their historical context in order to judge visual artworks? One view is that we can judge them aesthetically without any knowledge of that context; another, that without such knowledge, our judgments are likely to be limited, even arbitrary. Answering this question may well determine how we judge the importance of exhibition catalogues. But we are dealing with large issue that deserves discussion elsewhere.


On the Munich exhibition see On the Genji show, And on the Sahel exhibit,

I thank Philippe de Montebello and Natalie Haddad, my patient Hyperallergic editor for the discussion.

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.