Art of Communication: Making Museum Catalogues Appealing.

Author:Polizzotti, Mark
Position:Column

Work Title: Art of Communication: Making Museum Catalogues Appealing

Work Author(s): Mark Polizzotti

Columns

Byline: Mark Polizzotti

In the equation of what makes a good art book, one element is too often given short shrift: the reader. Art books---particularly museum-produced art books---are often judged on their academic merits, the quality of their reproductions, and the beauty of their layouts. But once we get beyond curatorial reviews and design juries, the question remains: what do these books have to say to a general audience? Should that audience even be considered?

When I began as publishing director at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, I found many volumes that my department had previously published, each offering sumptuously produced images and subtle morsels of research, all in the name of some laudable but vaguely defined notion of "scholarly excellence." What I did not find, on the other hand, was much evidence that the material in these volumes had been honed and packaged with a view toward making them as seductive as possible; that the scholarly content had been geared not only to win the approbation of the author's peers but also to edify, enlighten, and even---dare I say it?---entertain the non-specialist. Such considerations might sound patently vulgar to some. But our warehouse was stacked with old titles, some of them having sat there for decades after returning unwanted from specialty bookstores---assuming they'd even gotten that far. What good were they doing gathering dust, while incurring storage charges for the privilege? And (at the risk of sounding churlish toward my predecessors) why had they been made to appear so awfully dry and forbidding?

I believe the answer lies in part in the way that museum publishing has traditionally been viewed. As educational, not-for-profit institutions, museums place a premium on deepening the available knowledge about their collections. Oftentimes, that deepening takes the form of minuscule amendments to the body of facts surrounding an object: the finer the point being made, the more noteworthy it seems. As such, the publications recording such research become documents for the happy few---a kind of "unauthorized personnel keep out" sign, with footnotes. The result, which affects not only the publishers of these books but also the stores that stock them and the libraries that shelve them, is a glut of gorgeous hardcovers with little appeal beyond the ranks of the anointed, and...

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