He put the writing on the wall
5,000 labels for 5,000 artworks? That was Benjamin Weiss’s job.
BENJAMIN Weiss may have had the single most daunting task of anyone involved in the Museum of Fine Arts’ new Art of the Americas Wing. As head of interpretation, Weiss’s job title, he was responsible for every wall label and text panel. This meant sometimes writing, always editing, and always — always — double-checking some 5,000 pieces of text. Weiss, 43, has been head of interpretation for five years. A Newton native, he did graduate work in history at Princeton. His special field then? Renaissance cartography. “I was interested in word and image together,’’ he says. “That is definitely something this job is all about.’’
Q. What’s involved in being head of interpretation? Is it fun?
A. Well, the job starts with the idea that what the curator knows and wants to say doesn’t necessarily match what the public knows and is interested in. The fact that this is a position between, between a scholarly universe and a public universe, is appealing. Also, each week you’re doing something different: Japanese prints this week, American paintings next, Roman mosaics. You could be a copywriter, a museum educator, an art historian. It’s the luck of the draw.
A lot of what I do is akin to being a magazine editor. If you think of an exhibition as an article, I’m functioning as a content editor rather than a copy editor, although I also end up as the copy editor. “Here’s the story. It feels a little amorphous. You’ve got too much here, too little there, maybe the best way to tell it would be like this.’’ This is all based on — nothing scientific, let’s put it that way. So there’s a certain amount of shaping of narratives.
Q. Do you have a working philosophy?
A. My goal is that, whatever the texts, they should be direct and communicative and somewhat less olympian than museum texts tend to be. There’s always been a tendency for these labels, wall texts, whatever, to sit quietly on the wall and you’re supposed to go and read them. My goal is that instead of having you read the walls, the walls speak to you. It’s not really a change in what they say. The information that’s getting across is likely to be the same sort of thing. Instead, we want to reframe the question from “What is this thing?’’ to “Why am I looking at this thing?’’ and “Why should I care?’’ We’re trying to take interpretative strategies a little further than they’ve gone before: more direct, more colloquial, more informal.
Q. You do a bit of everything. A curator writes a given wall panel and you send it back.
Q. You write a wall panel and send it to a curator.
Q. So there’s no set procedure?
A. No, there isn’t.
Q. The mechanics of it, proofreading . . .
A. Everybody pitches in, as a way of insuring nobody is surprised. With computers, you can twiddle endlessly now. So everybody’s proofreading, everybody’s catching things. I insist on being the last person to see these things before they’re printed. Paranoia has led me to be a very systematic proofreader.
Q. Has working on the American Wing been fun, overwhelming, or both?
A. Both. I came into this project relatively late . . .
Q. Was that a good thing or a bad thing for your sanity?
A. Ask my wife! I didn’t start fully dealing with the wing until last December. It’s been very interesting to be so deeply immersed in something. It’s like writing a dissertation, though much more fractured. One thing that makes me good at this job is I have intellectual ADD. Has it been absorbing? Absolutely.
Interview was condensed and edited. Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.