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.
Student aces essay exam by combining all required elements into one short paragraph.
A university creative writing class was asked to write a concise essay containing the following elements:
The prize-winning essay read:
‘My God,” said the Queen, “I’m pregnant. I wonder who did it!”
The prof coldly announces, “It’ll take quite some time to write an essay of this nature and smoothly incorporate all subjects, so please begin.”
About fifteen minutes later, a boy raised his hand and announced that he was finished. The startled prof says, “I don’t see how you can be finished with an essay of that nature in that short a time.”
“Well, I have,” said the smiling student.
“If you think so, read it aloud.”
The student read, “‘My God,’ said the queen, ‘I’m pregnant. I wonder whose it is?'”
The “brief essay” legend has been documented as far back as 1935. It has since surfaced in a number of humor books and folklore collections, and now the Internet is breathing new life into it by circulating it as a
“true story.” (No one is quite sure why identifying it as such would be deemed to increase the enjoyment factor, but this has become a common enough claim to make about various bits of ancient lore now being shunted about in cyberspace.)
The phrasing of the second example showcased above provides clues as to how we’re supposed to view this particular chapter in the eternal struggle between student and professor — we’re supposed to applaud the brilliance of the essay the “smiling” student used to put into his place the snooty professor who by addressing his charges “coldly” had implied the assigned task was at the limit of their capabilities. College lore is replete with wish fulfillment legends in which clever students one-up their instructors by taking advantage of semantic ambiguities in the instructions given to them. (Our page details another legend that invokes this theme.) In real life, an “essay” such as the smiling student had taken such pride in would likely earn him nothing other than a kick in the pants: Grades aren’t awarded for cleverness; they’re earned by performing the required task well.
The legend appears in non-academic settings as well:
Another writer who leaves very little unsaid in his books is the Frenchman Jean Paul Sartre. The Left Bank of Paris is usually buzzing with stories about this witty writer. It is said that he sent a scenario manuscript to a Hollywood film studio, and in due course he received back the script accompanied by a rejection slip.
Evidently it was thought that he had talent for this type of writing, because he was advised that the studio would like to see something else, but that his present submission did not measure up to the prerequisites of a good film story. For his information these were: religious sentiment, dramatic surprise, human interest, brevity, and, last but not least, sex appeal.
Sartre took this well-meant counsel under advisement and penned a reply to the studio secretary.
“How would this do?” he queried. “‘My God!’ cried the Duchess, ‘let go my leg!'”
If one thinks about it, this sentence contains all the ingredients for the model film story, but it sounds more like a line out of an Oscar Wilde play!
Admittedly, the veracity of this anecdote founders on its Sartre-chasm; it’s been told about others, as well:
Charles Morton of the Atlantic Monthly revives the story of the group of writers who were discussing the ideal opening for a commercially successful piece of fiction. They agreed that the first paragraph should contain life and big money, and unconventional situation. On that basis, one of them contrived this unbeatable beginning, “Damn it,” said the Duchess to the King, “take your hand off my leg.”