Photographs, text and captions

Like other forms of museum objects, the meanings of photographs are framed by the practices of captioning, but the relationship between image and text, the tone of the words, the tense used can all shape the work done by photographs in museums. This applied equally it captions in galleries and metadata in cataloguing systems which determine ways into photographs. Should captions concern themselves with describing the meaning or content of the photograph or with shaping its interpretation? But what is the relationship between the two?  There are tensions in way captions can contain and constrain the meaning of a photograph, offer insight yet generalise, but also offer a precision of meaning and content which is at the same time unstable. As Mieke Bal has put it, captions are“ keys or shifters between visual and textual information, between what the viewer is given and what the curator has done’ (Bal 2002:154-155)

It is, of course, a basic museological premise that one should  describe what things are in collections management and, in the galleries, tell people, what they are looking at. This seldom happens with photographs used in history galleries.  The content is described – “a photograph showing ….” But beyond this how are interpretations to be guided, how preferred readings of the photographs to be established, given the multiple meanings of photographs? Thus captions often reflect obvious meanings, describing content not the photograph itself as an historical object. They encourage viewers to look through the photographs as an unmediated window on the world. But within this, captions are used to frame readings; for instance a photograph of a tea planter and his wife and their servant on the veranda in Assam, India which was used in an exhibition on clothing, demanded a focus of the narrative of clothing yet had to find ways of doing this without eliding the very clear depiction of colonial power relations so clearly evident in the photograph.

How ‘context’ was developed through captions and description was a particular anxiety of many of the curators we spoke too. Photographs were seen as providing information but also as needing ‘too much context’, making their use in the museum impracticable. This was particularly so in relation to photographs of the colonial past, that they were ‘too difficult’ and could not be adequately contextualized within the gallery space. As one curator made clear to us, the tight decisions which had to be made about use of space in the galleries, combined with the well-grounded belief that visitors did not read text, meant that it was effectively impossible to use photographs, particularly those that expanded the meanings of the gallery: “one of the things that we’ve wrestled with in these galleries is trying to preserve the focus on Birmingham and the experience of the Birmingham people, but at the same time to try and keep contextualising that [history].  And there’s always the temptation to get into too much context in a way, you’re almost kind of making it a sort of universal story, rather than keeping pulling it back to Birmingham and Birmingham people.”

At Pitt Rivers Museum, one can track, through the increasing sophistication of captions and their engagement with the historical conditions of photographic production, such as the description of photographic process. It demonstrates a growing institutional consciousness of the work photographs were doing in displays and the way the historicity of the photographic images was entangled with the history of the object collections themselves. Although from about the 1980s a catalogue number and date were given, there have been more recent developments in captioning practices which have been extended to a description of the photographic process and a clear indication of the status of the object on display: for instance “modern reproduction from an albumen print”

Those photographs used as design solutions or to create atmosphere and affect – are generally not captioned. Their function is generic, despite the specificity of their making, and to make the viewer feel rather than to think and to learn. It also marks hierarchies of objects in the gallery and thus hierarchies of information and narrative. For instance, in the South East Asia galleries at the Tropenmuseum, the large ‘affect’ photographic murals are uncaptioned, their role is to create an ambiance and set up a sense of both place and, being black and white, historicity, but on the terms set by the objects and their display not the photographs.

However, attempts to introduce ‘the historical voice’ into captions, especially when related to the ‘reality effect’ of photographs can be difficult. At BECM in Bristol, photographs were captioned very carefully to explain content and to link them to the wider narrative of the exhibition. However it is significant that while the museum showed some difficult and confrontational images, about colonial violence, casual racism of the colonial encounter and colonial science, the only complaint received was about a caption where the original nineteenth century text had been used. This reflects one of the major contributing factors to the violent objections to the Into the Heart of Africa exhibition in Toronto in 1989-1990 was the use of an original caption for a photograph became one of the major foci of opposition to the exhibition. Neither the historical voice, nor the curatorial irony, was recognized. In the contexts here, it is interesting that the use of the original caption both framed the reading of the image, but also failed to control, the multiple meanings brought to the photograph by museum visitors. In both cases the use of the ‘historical voice’ in the captioning of photographs was misunderstood as condoning or reproducing unacceptable colonial values.