Alfred Hitchcock was famous for insisting that the cinema was a visual art, which was at its best when it told stories by means of images and not words. He once told François Truffaut that the very worst thing a screenwriter could say was “We’ll cover that in a line of dialogue.” Much the same might be said of museum curators, whose strongest exhibitions are nearly wordless, letting their objects speak for themselves, and whose weakest ones rely on their didactic labels—those text-heavy installations that read like the enlarged pages of a textbook (hence the mordant term “a book on the wall exhibition.”)

Why museum exhibitions have become so garrulous is no mystery. In part, it reflects the increasing tendency for the tone of museums to be set by their education departments, for which the occupational hazard is a well-intentioned condescension. (A curator at the...

 

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