We struggle for reconciliation in many areas of our work: conservation or access, objects or ideas, traditional or avant-garde. When it comes to interpretation in art galleries, the binary position seems to be either ‘experience’ or ‘interpretation’, as though the purity of the former is tainted by the latter, as though intellectual understanding cancels out the aesthetic or emotional in the equation of art appreciation. If this were true, then art experts, having lost their innocence, would be unable to enjoy the works they curate. 

The truth is that experts don’t feel any lack in a minimalist gallery because they carry the interpretation with them in their heads. For the rest of us, context can add hugely to the pleasure of art and can reassure people who feel unsure of gallery etiquette. Understanding who made a work of art, how it was made, why and when can help us make sense of the piece and move us beyond “Do I like it or not?” I for one can still be moved and inspired by works that I studied at university.

The first chapter of Elaine Heumann Gurian’s excellent 2007 book Civilizing the Museum is called The Importance of “And”. In the book she challenges us to welcome and balance difference rather than seeking to oppose what we perceive as the threatening other. I think it’s time we stopped wasting energy setting up false distinctions and worked together for the benefit of all our audiences. We could start by replacing “or” with ”and”.