Schemas

Because most art museum visitors lack experience dealing with our subject matter, they can most easily stretch and build their understanding when the information starts with something they already know. As we experience the world, we all build schemas to organize and interpret information as it comes in. Tapping into these schemas helps build bridges for readers from what they already know to new concepts. For example, consider the following definition of pomelos:

Also called Shaddock, the largest fruit from the citrus family with a thick soft rind that is easy to peel away. The resulting fruit has a yellow to coral pink flesh and can vary from juicy to slightly dry, and from sweet to tangy and tart.

Do you have a picture in your head of a pomelo?

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“Analogies prove nothing that is true,” wrote Sigmund Freud, “but they can make one feel more at home.”

Analogies, comparing two different things in order to highlight some similarity, are very useful, because they can tap into our visitors’ schemas – what our visitors already know. Describing the functions of the human brain by comparing them to functions of a computer is a popular analogy.

One of my favorite didactic labels of all time taps into people’s schemas, and is core and compact. This label isn’t for one work of art, but rather for an exhibition at the Phillips collection.  Notice how it sticks to what visitors to the exhibition will see.

El Greco to Picasso from the Phillips Collection

The contents of a stranger’s shopping cart, the books in an acquaintance’s living room—every collection of objects says something about its owner. This one is no exception.

Duncan Phillips put together his art collection like a host making a guest list—always searching for the right mixture, harmonious yet diverse. Looking through these rooms, you may notice his preferences. He had a weakness for color. He avoided art that he considered overly intellectual. He was drawn to emotion, wherever he found it: human gestures, haunting color, expressive brushstrokes.

What is it that makes you like the art you like? How much do your tastes match those of Duncan Phillips?

This label is so admirable because it starts with something most people know a little about – shopping and bookshelves. It’s quite simple, only 110 words. It also begins in concrete rather than abstract terms, something we’ll cover in the next section. When the label does venture into the abstract it gives an example. Art expresses emotion, but what does that really mean? In this label the abstract idea of emotion as expressed by art is laid out quite clearly and in more concrete terms: for Duncan Phillips, it meant human gestures, haunting color and expressive brushstrokes.

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