While preparing the wall text for a museum exhibition about New York City, the curator, Wendy Nalani E. Ikemoto, consulted an unlikely figure in the world of contemporary American art: a Central Park carriage driver.
She walked up to Nurettin Kirbiyik and his horse at a spot where carriages convene at the southern end of the park and showed him a photograph of a 1945 oil painting by Gifford Beal, “Central Park Hack,” in which a top-hat-wearing driver commands a regal white horse.
“Hi, I’m a curator at the New-York Historical Society,” Ikemoto said in her introduction. Mr. Kirbiyik, like his predecessor, wore a top hat. “Can I talk to you about this painting?”
Today his interpretation is emblazoned on the wall of New York City’s oldest museum, next to the painting itself.
“This painting reminds me of springtime in Central Park when the leaves are at their brightest and the sun is shining,” Kirbiyik wrote. “It reminds me of riding my horse, Leyla, and having a good time with my customers while enjoying the warm weather after a cold winter.”
The New-York Historical Society, where Ikemoto works, is one of a growing number of institutions around the country engaged in urgent conversations about how to diversify exhibitions, reach broader audiences, and remove cultural biases from their programming. Now many curators are turning to experiments that give outside voices the chance to speak within museum walls — such as writing wall labels — that experts say may help visitors connect with the art in a more personal way than before. At the exhibition, the public interpretation appears on the label directly below the professional insight.
The Middlebury College Museum of Art, in Vermont, for example, while rehanging its art, recently decided to invite students — some without art backgrounds — to rewrite existing labels, giving them the ability to edit what they find to be cultural stereotypes and biases in curatorial writing. Students, faculty and staff at the college are also invited to write additional labels for selected works that center on their own personal or academic perspectives; in one such label, two students from Ghana responded to a work by El Anatsui, a Ghanaian sculptor.
It is more common to see the community invited to contribute to a specific exhibition, such as the Delaware Art Museum’s show featuring Danny Lyon’s photographs of the Southern Civil Rights Movement. The museum brought in Black leaders — including performing artists and a historical society trustee — to create wall texts for the exhibition and won plaudits in the label writing competition of the American Alliance of Museums.
According to the museum’s exit surveys, 77 percent of visitors read “Community Contribution” labels while 29 percent said the labels changed how they saw the photographs. And surveys showed that visitors valued the chance to learn from fellow community members, the museum said.
“It goes to the growing understanding that art museums have been exclusive places,” said Swarupa Anila, an executive at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, who was a judge in that competition. “This is a practice to engage, to be more inclusive.”
New-York Historical calls its scheme “democratizing” the labeling. Ikemoto’s exhibition, “Scenes of New York City,” includes Gifford Beal’s work among those by Marc Chagall, Edward Hopper, Jacob Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe and Andy Warhol in a treasury of iconic New York City landmarks and landscapes, including the Brooklyn Bridge, Carnegie Hall, Union Square Park and the Waldorf Astoria hotel.
Along with the big names populating the exhibition, which opened fully last month, visitors will see plenty of unrecognizable ones — dozens of New Yorkers who were invited by Ikemoto, the curator of American art, to comment on the works, which span the 1790s to 2009. Wall labels include thoughts and impressions from writers, historians, blue-collar workers, sports and culture enthusiasts, artists and those with some connection to the location being depicted. The art is from a large collection promised to the museum by Elie Hirschfeld, the real estate developer and son of Abe Hirschfeld, and his wife, Sarah Hirschfeld, a physician and researcher.
“This was a way of inviting the public inside to make them not just passive recipients of what’s on the wall, but actual participants,” Ikemoto said.
She asked a rector at St. Patrick’s Cathedral to comment on a watercolor of the building under construction; a tugboat captain to discuss a chalk drawing of New York Harbor; a student to share her thoughts on a depiction of Stuyvesant High School; and a dredge superintendent to talk about a painting of dredging in the East River (he immediately noticed that John Henry Twachtman’s depiction of dredging in the 19th century appeared to break some present-day safety protocols).
Conversations around what museum labels should say — and if they should exist at all — have been going on at institutions for decades. The words will be the only context many visitors have for the art they are seeing, and many curators believe that in order to preserve the visual power of the art, the number of words should be strictly limited.
In a period of intense self-examination at institutions around issues of race and equity, curators say that a short museum label can crystallize some of the existential questions institutions face right now: Who is equipped to write authoritatively about this work? Who is this label being written for? And how do we give over this platform to people who haven’t previously had it?
Ulysses Grant Dietz, who was chief curator at the Newark Museum of Art when he stepped down in 2017 after nearly four decades there, said some experts in his field have long resisted handing label-writing off to members of the public because they worried it would dilute the power of curatorial authority. That anxiety seems to have waned a bit, he said, as the museum world has come to better understand the need to turn away from an approach in which the curators perspective is presented as the be all and end all.
“We’re very wary now of history presented purely as fact,” Dietz said. “We’re so aware that history is written by the people in charge, and the public feels very suspicious of that.”
Ikemoto, who is part Native Hawaiian, said it is not uncommon now to see museums invite Indigenous people to comment on Indigenous art. In her exhibition, Ikemoto said she wanted Indigenous people to comment on Euro-American art, bringing in a perspective that is rarely considered alongside such works. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art did something similar when it adjusted or augmented many labels in the American wing with comments from Indigenous artists, scholars and leaders — some of whom do not have art backgrounds — in an effort to erase bias.)
At her museum, under a Reginald Marsh painting, “Construction, Steel Workers,” which depicts the making of a skyscraper, Ikemoto included a label written by Steven Thomas, who is Mohawk Akwesasne and a former steelworker, a nod to the Mohawk ironworkers who helped build the city. He writes with the sensory authority of someone who has been present in a similar scene, noting how “one can hear the wind whistle through the steel skeleton of the building.”
It is a significant departure from a traditional style of wall text that aims to project curatorial objectivity. At times, the outside voices take a much stronger position than a curator would, adding tension to the artwork that might not have otherwise existed for some visitors.
Carlos Nadal’s painting “Columbus Circle, New York City” includes the towering marble statue of Christopher Columbus, a figure that has been removed from similar positions of honor across the country because of his legacy as a European colonizer whose journeys led to the decimation of American Indigenous populations.
Next to the painting, Willow Lawson, a writer, describes her experience passing by the statue as someone who is Ojibwe and Dakota, making a strong statement about the painful history behind the monument.
“When I walk by the Columbus statue, I like to remember the original inhabitants of Manhattan — the Indigenous men and women whose footsteps are responsible for Broadway’s diagonal path through Columbus Circle and across the island,” she said. She added, “I would like to see the statue removed.”