Captions accompanying works of art are the most basic form of conveying information and communicating with visitors at an art museum. In designs that are sometimes purist and sometimes like miniature artworks, sometimes concise and sometimes communicative, they reflect the history of the collection, while also providing information about what was considered the museum’s function at a given time. In its almost 200-year history the Gemäldegalerie Berlin has produced a wide variety of captions, which are now are being presented for the first time in a historically researched cabinet exhibition. A combination of archive material, artworks and historical photographs are used to elucidate the labels and situate them within their contemporaneous contexts.
In the early days of the museum, the labelling consisted solely of numbers attached to the frames that referred to corresponding catalogue entries. This approach would have far-reaching consequences, with the Gemäldegalerie using “catalogue numbers” instead of inventory numbers ever since.
From the 1870s onwards, efforts were made to add more detailed labels to the frames, leading to an intensive theoretical discourse about what a label should convey. With the move to the Kaiser-Friederich-Museum, labels were mounted on the wall next to the works for the first time.
The fact that the donors of the paintings were also mentioned on the new labels must be seen in the context of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum association, which had been founded just a few years earlier. The period under the Nazi regime, on the other hand, was marked by the removal of the names of Jewish donors (James Simon, in particular) from those very labels.
Handwritten labels offer an impression of the precarious situation of the museums in the post-war period. The past forty years have seen a lively debate about audio guides, didactic texts and strongly reduced, austere lettering.
The exhibition shows a number of surviving historical labels and paintings that still bear their historical labels on the frame. In addition to a loan from the Kupferstichkabinett (Museum of Prints and Drawings), the exhibition also includes records relating to the furnishings and maintenance of the Gemäldegalerie as well as historical photographs of the Gemäldegalerie from the holdings of the Staatliche Museen’s Zentralarchiv (Central Archive).
A cabinet exhibition of the Gemäldegalerie of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.