Emotions in Curation


Michael McGinnes is the Collections Manager at Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum and a CHE Practitioner-In-Residence. He has set up numerous exhibitions for the Smith museum over the years, most notably the permanent exhibition The Stirling Story and is also the Official Keeper of the World’s Oldest Football (c. 1540).
Michael visited the University of Western Australia earlier this year for a Masterclass on Emotions in Curation. 

Michael and Football
Photo of the Oldest Football in the world. Of interest to one third of the population of the world but only have space for two small labels.

Museums have a problem. They need to excite and entertain and educate their audience with the objects on display but their only means of doing so is a short label which may only contain a name and a date. It is well known that most people will not read more than one or two sentences before moving on to the next object.  After all many visitors coming into a museum do not know what they are really there to see or have a preconceived idea of what the museum contains. How do you create an emotional response between a visitor and an object when usually they have very little idea what they are looking at or its significance? Labels are also considered a distraction, especially in art galleries, and in some cases are reduced in size to the point they are almost unreadable and contain no useful information.  In addition, with an ageing population, labels become more difficult to read in a physical sense because you have to bend down, adjust spectacles or head position even in difficult lighting conditions and bring the details to focus. All this physical activity makes museum and gallery visits tiring and for some unsatisfactory.

To provide an emotional experience requires considerably more information than can be provided via a label.  In our museum we have removed labels from our art gallery to force the visitor to look at the art rather than the label. We also provide folders with general information and images which they can take around the gallery as they view the works. This has had a positive response and we are finding that visitors are spending longer in front of individual paintings that interest them. However it is more difficult to do this in a general museum display where there are cases full of objects and complicated stories interlinking various items. We also know from experience that it can take many minutes of explanation and storytelling from a curator to obtain the response to an object that we are trying to achieve.  Some particular objects also have multiple and complicated histories or can be used to tell associated stories but these ideas we cannot put on labels.  We are now looking at all forms of communication, through our website and social media sites, to try and tell some of these stories. In situations, where a complicated story requires to be told, we hope to use the latest technology to provide that story in a form that is easier physically and academically for the visitors. This will allow us to use speech, music and imagery to enhance that experience for a number of important objects, association of objects or ideas.  It will make use of the visitor’s own electronic equipment, as far as possible, which will allow resources to be put towards the content rather than the equipment. It will allow the visitor to take some of that information with them if they wish. All this will help us make a museum and gallery visit an easier and more enjoyable experience but what it cannot do is replace the knowledge and emotion of a real curator standing in a museum gallery talking directly to you- or maybe it can!!.

Michael McGinnes
Collections Manager
Smith Art Gallery and Museum, Stirling, Scotland.