Trendswatch | Content warnings - Museums Association

Sign up to our newsletter today and you could win a free membership

Sign up to our newsletter today and you could win a free membership

Trendswatch | Content warnings

Museums must tread a fine line between being effective and inclusive, and heavy-handed and didactic
Exhibitions
Share
Tate Britain’s Hogarth and Europe exhibition was deemed ‘socially anxious’ by Guardian arts writer Laura Cumming

Content warnings are hardly a new phenomenon. Films in Britain have been subject to certification since 1912, offering caution on scenes of sex, violence and profanity, while the recording industry’s “parental advisory” sticker has become something of a cult logo.

Theatres often use warnings to express elements of a performance that some audience members might find distressing or even dangerous to health, such as gunshots or strobe lighting.

But arts institutions have moved on from simplistic lists of troubling content to more nuanced summaries of topics that might upset people. For example, advance information on immersive company Punchdrunk’s latest production, The Burnt City, cites “dark spaces, loud noises, strobe, haze, nudity and blood”, as well as warnings of narratives based on Greek tragedies involving war, murder and revenge.

While the terms “content” or “trigger” warning have become buzzwords across all areas of culture, they originate from post-traumatic stress disorder programmes relating to combat, before appearing on feminist websites at the turn of the millennium.

These notices offer readers a forewarning of topics such as rape, eating disorders, abortion and assault, and point to the crux of what a content warning is designed to do: create a safe and accessible environment for audiences that might otherwise feel marginalised or threatened.

In a museum context, the issue has been particularly thorny. What constitutes effective and inclusive messaging, as opposed to heavy-handed and didactic interpretation?

Advertisement

Tate Britain was called out for its 2020 British Baroque exhibition by critics who saw the analysis of artworks depicting slavery as inadequate, and those who bristled at the idea that the warning “there are artworks representing slavery on display in this room” was needed at all.

Likewise, its Hogarth and Europe exhibition, which closed in March, was deemed “socially anxious” by Guardian arts writer Laura Cumming, who saw the reams of interpretive text gleaned from a team of contributors as “designed to spot offence before it’s taken and even, on occasion, to invite the visitor to see insults that may not actually exist”.

Gin Lane by William Hogarth, 1751

Getting it right

Exhibition designer Margaret Middleton says: “The key to creating effective content warnings is to not dictate how visitors should decide to view an exhibit, but to describe the content and let visitors make up their own minds. Centre the wellbeing of the people most likely to be negatively impacted by the content.”

For example, you might be concerned that a warning on a room of lynching photos might deter the people who you think most need to see them. “But a content warning is necessary because it prioritises the experience of a Black visitor who may not have the capacity for that content,” says Middleton.

Advertisement

Emalee Beddoes-Davis, curator of modern and contemporary art at Birmingham Museums Trust, shares this view. While working on the exhibition Women, Power, Protest (November 2018-March 2019), she understood that displaying materials concerned with the struggle for women’s rights, involving accounts of gender-based violence, racism and more, could be difficult for some visitors to encounter.

“The show took on a lot of difficult subjects – some I have personal experience of,” says Beddoes-Davis. “Encountering work that speaks to your trauma can provide a sense of validation and solidarity, but it has the capacity to be devastating.”

As a result, she worked with engagement practitioner Jon Sleigh and wider community partners on the idea of consent as a key tenet of the exhibition experience. The artist Suzanne Knibbs was commissioned to produce a graphic plan that “allowed people to negotiate the space with an awareness of where they may encounter difficult subjects, and to make their own choices”.

Embedding alternative navigation into a show is a marker of how museums can move beyond simply utilising warning labels at an entrance, while still giving visitors’ autonomy.

“The best content warnings I’ve seen give a detailed description of what to expect in the gallery, avoid making assumptions about who the content is or is not for, and offer alternative routes should they wish to avoid this particular content,” says Middleton.

The Hayward Gallery’s Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child exhibition (closed 15 May) listed pregnancy, nudity and depictions of sexual acts and childbirth as topics that might require caution – demonstrating how assumptions around triggers are never universal.

Advertisement

Visitor guides were trained to answer questions regarding sensitive topics and provide alternative routes around the show.

The gallery used recommendations and guidance, as opposed to restrictions, to ensure that visitors were aware of the nature of the artwork on display, so they could engage with the works on their own terms.

Holly Black is a freelance arts journalist

Leave a comment

You must be signed in to post a comment.

Discover

Advertisement
Join the Museums Association today to read this article

Over 12,000 museum professionals have already become members. Join to gain access to exclusive articles, free entry to museums and access to our members events.

Join