Writing a Museum Catalog
These OWL resources provide guidance on typical genres with the art history discipline that may appear in professional settings or academic assignments, including museum catalog entries, museum title cards, art history analysis, notetaking, and art history exams.
Last Edited: 2016-06-02 03:42:54
A museum catalog is typically a book written in regards to a current exhibition. For example, an exhibition of Victorian paintings concerning the legend of King Arthur could be on display at the British Art Museum. The title could be: The Marriage of History and Legend: The Victorian Revival of King Arthur. While the museum exhibit itself might have wall text with a brief introduction to the exhibit as well as having text panels for each piece, anyone wanting more information on the theme of the exhibit might be interested in purchasing a catalog.
Title Page & Table of Contents
The title page of a museum catalog is crucial – you need to think of an image that completely encompasses the theme of your exhibition. Many times the more famous or iconic work of art in the exhibition is on the title page with the title. For The Marriage of History and Legend: The Victorian Revival of King Arthur an image of King Arthur pulling the sword out of the stone would be the best candidate in this regard.
Always provide a table of contents for the museum catalog. Include the introduction, main scholarly essays, a list of the work of arts, notes/bibliography section.
Museum Gallery Guide
Depending on the scope of the project one might choose to provide a gallery guide for your audience – a visual representation of where the pieces will be on display. Having an exhibit in a large space could lead individuals to find specific works of art they might want to see, whereas a smaller space means that a guide would not be necessary.
Include visuals of the exhibit space, an outline of the shape of the objects and where they are located, including building structures such as exit signs, and a key for your user.
Museum Catalog Introduction
Museum catalogs begin with an introductory essay to the theme of the exhibition. Often parts of the introduction are reprinted and displayed with the exhibition itself while the longer introduction is contained in the catalog.
Approaching the introduction to the exhibition is similar to tackling any typical research essay. First, grab the audience’s attention and provide some sort of thesis statement concerning the exhibition. What is the main goal of the exhibition? To back up a thesis statement consider what piece of art to include. The pieces of work on display do not exist in a vacuum. Similar to providing textual quotes to argue a literary essay, art historians use ‘art’ as their evidence to argue their thesis as well as providing primary and secondary sources. It is best to introduce some of these major works of art in the introduction. The following examples include an introductory grader and the thesis or purpose of the exhibition:
Grabber: At the end of the legend made most famously by Thomas Malory in 1469, King Arthur lies in a bloody field with a broken body and spirit…The tragic story of Arthur, frequently referred to as The Once and Future King, is a story with no definite ending. Subsequently, the legend is reinvented countless times, often during times in history when the mythology can be re-defined to fit into modern context.
Thesis: The museum exhibit titled The Marriage of History and Legend: The Victorian Revival of King Arthur surveys Victorian England’s fascination with the medieval past as seen through the art movement of the Pre-Raphaelites, the Gothic Revival, and Romanticism. Queen Victoria is studied in association with the ideas of a model monarchy and the ideal relationship expected between the sexes. Along with those ideas, the exhibit scrutinizes the dangers associated with women who tried to break away from their traditional roles. Lastly, the exhibit focuses on the Arthurian legend becoming something “real” and tangible to which the everyday individual can truly relate and aspire to.
Another strategy to consider in an introduction is the use of segments. Many times an introduction can be broken into segments – the main point of the introduction is to introduce the focal pieces of the exhibition and how they relate to the theme of the exhibition.
Segments for this examplewould consist of a few pages to discuss the Pre-Raphaelites, Gothic Revival, Romanticism, Queen Victoria, Albert the Good, and Arthurian character descriptions. These topics can be discussed furthermore in the actual focal pieces but by providing information in the introduction more of your analysis can focus on the art piece and only mentioning historical context – but that is up to your own discretion. If you mention a main work of art in the introduction and discuss later in the catalog it is best to write [Figure 1] and when you cite the work of art provide before the information [Fig 1], etc.
Typically pieces that are not on display but are relevant to the exhibition can be cited in this section. For example – when discussing Victorian art culture in relation to King Arthur it would be important to discuss Gothic architecture and then provide an image as an example. The introduction should provide historical and thematic context for the exhibit.
Museum Catalog Entry
Depending on the project a museum catalog will either contain small academic essays or decide to focus on the pieces of work in the exhibition. In the case of academic essays just keep in mind that catalogs typically focus on ‘mini themes’ in the exhibit. For The Marriage of History and Legend: The Victorian Revival of King Arthur it would be beneficial to have one essay on Tennyson’s literary work that would then contain pieces of art work (mostly in the exhibition but some can be provided as outside examples) and how Tennyson’s work relates to the theme of the exhibit.
If you want to just focus on art pieces and not academic essays, catalog entries are typically no more than 500 words and include a brief historical scope of the piece as well as a formal analysis of the piece.
For information on how to cite a work of art in MLA, see the OWL page MLA Works Cited: Other Sources.
Catalog Entry Example:
Edward Burne-Jones, The Beguiling of Merlin, 1874-76. Oil on Canvas. Board of the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight)
A contrasting Vivien from the time is the Edward Burne-Jones version titled The Beguiling of Merlin, in which his Vivien again takes the name Nimue. In this version, Burne-Jones depicts Nimue as a maiden striving to protect her virtue. She is seen more as an anguished deity than a demonic villainess (Silver, 258). Her costume is typical of a Greek goddess and she wears a serpent headdress similar to Medusa. The serpentine forms of her snaky headdress are repeated in the folds of her indigo dress, in the roots of the trees, and “branches while like tentacles surround the failing man.” (Whitaker, 245) The model for Merlin was the American journalist W.J. Stillman whose face was damaged in a childhood accident, making his hair unusually white for his age. Nimue was Maria Zambaco, who Edward Burne-Jones was deeply in love with; when their relationship was over, Burne-Jones was depressed for many years, and Zambaco was suicidal. In a letter written during 1893, Burne-Jones wrote to his friend Helen Gaskell saying, “I was being turned into a hawthorn bush in the forest of Broceliande- every year when the hawthorn buds it is the soul of Merlin trying to live again the world and speak- for he left so much unsaid” (245). Vivien stands in the foreground, a dominant position that is usually reserved for men. She holds in her hand Merlin’s book of spells, towering over Merlin who cowers under her powerful gaze. Burne-Jones uses his art to express a psychological problem of an artist who is “reduced to impotence by a woman’s supremacy and his own lust” (245).
Silver, Carole “Victorian Spellbinders: Arthurian Women and the Pre-Raphaelite Circle,” in The Passing of Arthur: New Essays in Arthurian Tradition (New York: Garland Pub., 1988), 257.
Whitaker, Muriel A. The Legends of King Arthur in Art, 245.
Make sure to include a bibliography for a complete work of artwork used and cite any primary or secondary sources used in your research.
Customarily, when painter Ben Aronson's work is exhibited in a gallery, a catalogue is published filled with images of artworks in the show and an appreciative essay by a critic. However, when Karen Jenkins-Johnson had a show at her San Francisco gallery in 2008, there was a catalogue, but it didn't have an essay. "People -- clients -- aren't reading essays," she said. "They just want to see the images and a C.V." -- the artist's version of a resume, which she has included. Essays are also expensive, costing several thousand dollars, "and I have to recoup that by selling another painting, or maybe half or quarter of a painting." Every penny counts these days, in a world of ever-rising rents and intense competition for sales. The one- to three-dollar-per-word essay may be the most expendable luxury.
Emily Mason is another artist whose solo gallery exhibits are accompanied by catalogues with both words and pictures, but the catalogue for her March 2011 show at David Findlay Jr. Fine Art in New York City has images but no critical essay. The reason, gallery director Louis Newman noted, is that Mason has "a large and loyal clientele who just want to see the images, to see what she's doing now. Her clients think they know more than any writer. They don't need some 30-year-old telling them why they should like her work."
Many gallery exhibition catalogues continue to include essays, offering biographical, art historical and technical insights about the artists, but a trend is emerging: the catalogue essay is slowly fading away, replaced sometimes by a dealer's penned tribute or a brief question-and-answer page with the artist or by nothing at all. "The word has become just a lot less important in these days when everyone has computers and iPods," said art critic Dore Ashton, who used to write catalogue essays frequently for gallery shows but now only for exhibitions that take place in Europe. "No one here reads that much." Or, more properly, visitors to galleries may not read exhibition catalogue essays as much as they once might have done. Both Newman and Jenkins-Johnson stated that they have received blank stares when mentioning to prospective buyers an idea written up in the catalogue essay. "Most times, no one notices if an essay isn't included," Andrew Arnot, director of Manhattan's Tibor de Nagy gallery, said. The essay is rarely a part of conversations he has with collectors, and it does not appear to be a factor in a collector's decision if or what to buy. As a result, the Tibor de Nagy gallery also has foregone catalogue essays, at least some of the time.
Not every dealer takes this view. New York gallery owner June Kelly stated that "I have essays in every catalogue, and I always have," claiming that part of her role is educator. "I see the general public needing information. I want to give people a sense of what the work is about, a point of reference." She added that essays are helpful to visitors to the gallery who are not collectors -- yet -- and simply need a way to understand what they are seeing. Still, the connection between the information essay and actual sales is tenuous, and their continued inclusion is based on the belief that it is the right thing to do rather than it is a proven marketing tool.
There may be no way of knowing who, if anyone, reads these essays. "Art critics read them," said Kim Levin, an art critic and past president of the International Association of Art Critics, adding that what critics write is influenced by what others have written. She added that exhibitions come and go, and it is the ideas about the art found in the written essays that may have a longer resonance than the memory of the images. For many professional critics, writing catalogue essays form a substantial portion of their income; catalogue essays indicate, among other things, who's hiring.
The artists themselves read them. George Schectman, owner of New York's Gallery Henoch, stated that the essays "are more important to the artists than to the gallery." When the choice is made to hire a writer, which is frequently an economic decision (at many galleries, artists contribute to the cost of exhibitions), the critic is approved by the artist in advance (sometimes, the artist proposes an essayist), and the essay also must be OK'ed by the artists before being published. However, Schectman said, "artists are much more critical about the color reproductions in the catalogue than about the essay."
The artists are probably onto something, since most gallery owners claim that buyers are sold on the images, rather than what is said about them and who is saying it. Emily Mason claimed that she prefers "not to have an essay, as it takes up space that could be used for reproductions. Essays take time that could better be spent looking at the art." Stuart Shils, whose paintings are currently being exhibited at the Tibor de Nagy gallery, stated that he doesn't regret the lack of an essay in the exhibition catalogue, since "I have read some pretty vacuous, self serving stuff in their catalogs" in the past. He added that the absence of an essay seemed a bit jarring at first, but "maybe, it is just a matter of something to get used to."
In general, according to San Francisco gallery owner John Pence, "the vast majority of collectors go straight to the pictures," adding that "museums and libraries are more likely to be interested in the essays." The usual print run for an exhibit at his gallery is 4,500, and only 10 percent of that group -- 150 to members of the press, 150 to schools and 150 to libraries -- may focus on the text.