The Whitworth Gallery in Manchester has recently re-opened after considerable extensions to the building . A number of special exhibitions have been mounted to mark the re-opening.
It is so long since I had visited the WHITWORTH that I can not remember the previous lay out and I am unable to compare the new with the old. The new spaces though are pleasing , and appear to be flexible. There is though a rather curious space , on the way to the restaurant, that seems accidently empty . The visitor wants to hurry through.
The most lingering memory of the gallery is the almost complete lack of signage. It was completely impossible to find the toilets! No signs pointed in any direction. We found the toilets under the restaurant but one for each gender is surely not the only toilet provision for such a large gallery. Later we found a toilet at the back of the Museum Shop – but no sign outside the shop to indicate the treasure within.
Both the WATERCOLOURS and PORTRAITS were hung in the manner of the RA Summer Exhibition, works hung in columns so that many were well above eye level and many below eye level. I feel that a bit more space between the works would have helped and also some judicious editing . In this exhibition less would have been more.
Labels on pictures always cause a problem. Detailed labels beside works often cause bottle necks around the works as the viewer goes in close to read the label and gets entangled with the viewer who is standing back to view the work. The Whitworth has chosen to deal with this problem by having no labels whatsoever. Instead they provide printed sheets with the works numbered and a list of credits for the works. While this removes the melee in front of individual works it creates more problems than it solves.
Each sheet referred to a numbered wall. BUT I couldn’t find any numbers on the walls. So the first problem was to work out which wall I was looking at by trying to uncode the layout of the paintings, not easy when they were all much of a size. In both galleries the lighting was very low, clearly necessary for the watercolours, but this made reading the description sheets very difficult.
I am sure there were some interesting works in both these exhibitions but in the end I gave up. The experience of viewing these exhibitions was disappointing and ultimately uncomfortable. Interestingly the signs in the Cornelia Parker exhibition were well placed and completely adequate, perhaps a different curator?
The problems that I experienced at the Whitworth lead us to consider what exactly is the purpose of labelling exhibits. Art Galleries in general aim to be inclusive, to encourage attendance of the general public and not pander to the specialist viewer. I suggest that labels should provide essential information and ultimately labels should enhance the visitors’ experience. There is clearly a balance to be struck between too little and too much information but for a serious viewer the artist , the date of production and the title are a minimum. This minimum information gives the general viewer some indication of the artist’s purpose and a jumping off point for a search for further information.
I find the adoption of this method of display very curious. Unless I have missed a development in museum display thinking , then The Whitworth has deliberately returned to a 19th century display mode. While innovation and experiment is to be encouraged there were good reasons for gallery display to move away from the type of display used here.
In summary , despite the quality of the exhibitions , the lack of information signs, together with the crowded displays with their lack of accessible information made for a disappointing experience.