Lack of an integrated approach

I visited the British Folk Art exhibition at Tate Britain yesterday and, like the curate’s egg, I found the exhibition was good in parts. (Closes today: moves to Compton Verney, Warwickshire, next month.) There were some truly amazing objects and memorable images. I liked the fact that there was a diversity of objects and styles and that they were allowed largely to speak for themselves by being hung together in context with one another. This worked really well with the trade signs where the artefacts were grouped together and it was a surprise to see early 20th century trade signs up against much older ones: it worked less well when there were only one or two examples of a particular strand – such as portraits of extremely fat livestock or landscapes of minor gentry houses – clearly proud of their homes, gardens, and farms, but not able to afford or have access to more accomplished artists to depict what was so dear to them. This is a common and important strand in what we understand as ‘folk art’ and it was difficult to see why so few examples could be provided, as there are usually several examples in regional museums and galleries. I can think of a few off-hand. 

Sometimes I felt that it was a little bit random as to why some objects merited expanded labels and others did not. It was in this context that I felt the lack of a transcript to the audioguide was most marked, as other people were able to gain access to more content than I was. For a gallery that regularly offers access to deaf visitors via specifically targeted talks across their sites, I felt that there was some oversight here. I know that there was a BSL talk earlier this summer, but I always feel that if you are going to have talks for deaf people, it’s a good idea to make the rest of the exhibition accessible too, so that they can gain full access when they look around independently before or after the talk, as well as visitors who aren’t able to make the date on which access is provided for whatever reason (as in my case). 

There was some film footage as well. I understand that it was historic film footage but it is possible to retrofit subtitles or at the very least provide a transcript. Later the same day I visited English Heritage’s We Will Remember Them: London’s Great War Memorials at the Quadriga Gallery, Wellington Arch, and later commentary had been superimposed as subtitles on historic film footage of the unveiling of the memorials, so it can be done.  

Similarly, there was no catalogue – even though advertised in the shop as such – only a book written ‘to accompany the exhibition’. There’s an important distinction. A catalogue should contain every entry in the exhibition and discuss it in a scholarly manner; a book accompanying the exhibition showcases selected works and may treat the subject by themed essays that are not necessarily in the order of display. In this case, it included only one photograph of a nautical woolwork picture, despite several being on display. So I wasn’t able to come away a lot the wiser about some of the things that really piqued my interest. 

I just feel that access is part of the entire intellectual approach to curating an exhibition and should be one of the starting points. What will the visitors learn, and how will they learn it? Specific materials are routinely provided for children (teachers’ materials, self-guided packs in language accessible to children) so why not cater for those who can’t hear what you provide for them? I say it often and often: for an audioguide to exist, it must have a script in the first place. In today’s world any work must create maximum value, so why shouldn’t the script be provided for the price of a few pieces of A4 and laminate covers – the cheapest access solution ever! 

This really bothered me, because this felt as if access was not even a bolt-on, but a symptom of an overarching approach to the subject. My impression was that someone had ‘had a good idea’ about the exhibition but then, because the subject was relatively new for a major ‘fine art’ gallery, hadn’t really known quite how to go about it. If folk art is deserving of an exhibition, it is also deserving of the same standard of scholarly attention as any other exhibition but lots of little things gave away the fact that it wasn’t the case here. 

I couldn’t understand why there were so few reproductions, even in the little booklet given out free to visitors, in which the usual ‘star attractions’ were largely replaced by line drawings of the rooms. It wasn’t the usual standard for Tate booklets and it can’t be a question of reproduction rights, as most of the objects had been borrowed from British collections and it is over 70 years since the death of most of the artists (not all – the exhibition rightly included examples of 20th century folk art). I wonder here if the lack of a sponsor had had an impact?

There are things, however, that have deeply worried me about recent Tate exhibitions. I loved the Matisse show at Tate Modern recently, but did note that the reproductions of his cut-outs in the Jazz book, with densely written text in French, and paired with his originals, was immediately rendered inaccessible to the general English-speaking public by not being translated. (I can speak French to this level, but not everyone can.) Access goes beyond disability issues, and direct access to Matisse’s own thoughts would have been amazing for the audience. 

If this seems less a review of an exhibition than the way it was curated, well, the way an exhibition is curated really informs the visitor experience. What a shame that an exhibition devoted to popular art – art of the people, by the people – was ironically the most inaccessible art exhibition I’ve visited so far this year.