The Minneapolis Institute of Art is spicing up those little labels you find by the paintings and sculpture with some storytelling. The rewriting project — called Mia-Plus — has produced a dramatic increase in how long visitors linger in each gallery.
Matthew Welch is the first to admit that what the museum business calls "didactics" can be a turn-off.
"The labels in museums have either suffered from being too short, not enough information — the so-called tombstone, and it really is a tombstone, in every sense of the word — or too long, that a curator will become so attached that they want to put 3,000 words on the wall," he said. "So it's feast or famine."
Welch, deputy director and chief curator, is heading up the effort to see what engages people's interest as they go through the galleries. Conversations with visitors revealed that people wanted something that rarely if ever appears in museum labels — a human connection with the artist.
"They want to know where that nugget of creativity came from," he said. "Why did an artist decide to do something this way? Why did they decide to pick this subject?"
So about 18 months ago, the institute launched a rewrite. A major rewrite.
"At any given time we have about 5,000 objects on view," said Welch. "And we decided that we were going to touch every single one of the labels."
So they brought in some help: Tim Gihring, a veteran of the magazine business. The idea was to bring in a little more storytelling.
In one of the high-ceilinged galleries filled with Renaissance paintings hangs El Grechetto's sumptuous 12-foot-tall painting "The Immaculate Conception with Saints Francis of Assisi and Anthony of Padua," painted in 1649. Gihring said this is one of the labels about to be changed.
"There's a lot of dates, a lot of names you might never have heard of, and no one explains what the Immaculate Conception is," he said.
The new sign, written to engage and edited for clarity, does explain that. It also gives some insight into the life of El Grechetto at the time he was creating this depiction of the Virgin Mary.
"He himself had a pretty violent past: threw his sister off the roof, got into a fistfight and was run out of town without his underwear," said Gihring. "That's the kind of interesting human side of the experience that we want to share."
Rewriting the didactics is just the start. Matthew Welch said the institute staff realized that while it's perfectly clear to curators why certain objects were gathered in one gallery, many visitors had no clue. It was time for another set of signs — and Welch said these produced dramatic results.
"Including a panel that explained why the works were hung together doubled the amount of time people spent in the gallery," he said. "That's pretty compelling."
Welch said research also showed that, while people come to the Minneapolis Institute of Art to see great paintings and sculpture, that's usually a secondary reason. Visitors are actually there to socialize, with a friend or relative. That led to another change.
"They want to look at the art and talk about it, and they also want to sit down and visit with each other," Welch said. "And so why not provide them with a space to do that?"
So Welch persuaded Room and Board to donate sofas, armchairs and coffee tables, which are now set up in 17 very comfortable, already popular seating areas. They are designed for chatting, but each also has an iPad loaded with a custom-designed system called ArtStories. It allows users to delve deep into the stories behind some of the artworks around them.
"When you pick one up in a specific gallery, it will only show you works initially that are in the vicinity," said Welch. He said about 85 ArtStories are already finished, and more are in the works.
Audience research suggests many visitors who use the system remember what they have learned weeks later, although they often are fuzzy about where they picked it up. But they remember the art — and that warms Matthew Welch's curating heart.