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.
Writing a paper for an art history course is similar to the analytical, research-based papers that you may have written in English literature courses or history courses. Although art historical research and writing does include the analysis of written documents, there are distinctive differences between art history writing and other disciplines because the primary documents are works of art. A key reference guide for researching and analyzing works of art and for writing art history papers is the 10th edition (or later) of Sylvan Barnet’s work, A Short Guide to Writing about Art. Barnet directs students through the steps of thinking about a research topic, collecting information, and then writing and documenting a paper.
A website with helpful tips for writing art history papers is posted by the University of North Carolina,
Wesleyan University Writing Center has a useful guide for finding online writing resources,
The following are basic guidelines that you must use when documenting research papers for any art history class at UALR. Solid, thoughtful research and correct documentation of the sources used in this research (i.e., footnotes/endnotes, bibliography, and illustrations**) are essential. Additionally, these Guidelines remind students about plagiarism, a serious academic offense.
Research papers should be in a 12-point font, double-spaced. Ample margins should be left for the instructor’s comments. All margins should be one inch to allow for comments. Number all pages. The cover sheet for the paper should include the following information: title of paper, your name, course title and number, course instructor, and date paper is submitted. A simple presentation of a paper is sufficient. Staple the pages together at the upper left or put them in a simple three-ring folder or binder. Do not put individual pages in plastic sleeves.
Documentation of Resources
The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), as described in the most recent edition of Sylvan Barnet’s A Short Guide to Writing about Art is the department standard. Although you may have used MLA style for English papers or other disciplines, the Chicago Style is required for all students taking art history courses at UALR. There are significant differences between MLA style and Chicago Style. A “Quick Guide” for the Chicago Manual of Style footnote and bibliography format is found http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html. The footnote examples are numbered and the bibliography example is last. Please note that the place of publication and the publisher are enclosed in parentheses in the footnote, but they are not in parentheses in the bibliography. Examples of CMS for some types of note and bibliography references are given below in this Guideline. Arabic numbers are used for footnotes. Some word processing programs may have Roman numerals as a choice, but the standard is Arabic numbers. The use of super script numbers, as given in examples below, is the standard in UALR art history papers.
The chapter “Manuscript Form” in the Barnet book (10th edition or later) provides models for the correct forms for footnotes/endnotes and the bibliography. For example, the note form for the FIRST REFERENCE to a book with a single author is:
1Bruce Cole, Italian Art 1250-1550 (New York: New York University Press, 1971), 134.
But the BIBLIOGRAPHIC FORM for that same book is:
Cole, Bruce. Italian Art 1250-1550. New York: New York University Press. 1971.
The FIRST REFERENCE to a journal article (in a periodical that is paginated by volume) with a single author in a footnote is:
2 Anne H. Van Buren, “Madame Cézanne’s Fashions and the Dates of Her Portraits,” Art Quarterly 29 (1966): 199.
The FIRST REFERENCE to a journal article (in a periodical that is paginated by volume) with a single author in the BIBLIOGRAPHY is:
Van Buren, Anne H. “Madame Cézanne’s Fashions and the Dates of Her Portraits.” Art Quarterly 29 (1966): 185-204.
If you reference an article that you found through an electronic database such as JSTOR, you do not include the url for JSTOR or the date accessed in either the footnote or the bibliography. This is because the article is one that was originally printed in a hard-copy journal; what you located through JSTOR is simply a copy of printed pages. Your citation follows the same format for an article in a bound volume that you may have pulled from the library shelves. If, however, you use an article that originally was in an electronic format and is available only on-line, then follow the “non-print” forms listed below.
Citations for Internet sources such as online journals or scholarly web sites should follow the form described in Barnet’s chapter, “Writing a Research Paper.” For example, the footnote or endnote reference given by Barnet for a web site is:
3 Nigel Strudwick, Egyptology Resources, with the assistance of The Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences, Cambridge University, 1994, revised 16 June 2008, http://www.newton.ac.uk/egypt/, 24 July 2008.
If you use microform or microfilm resources, consult the most recent edition of Kate Turabian, A Manual of Term Paper, Theses and Dissertations. A copy of Turabian is available at the reference desk in the main library.
C. Visual Documentation (Illustrations)
Art history papers require visual documentation such as photographs, photocopies, or scanned images of the art works you discuss. In the chapter “Manuscript Form” in A Short Guide to Writing about Art, Barnet explains how to identify illustrations or “figures” in the text of your paper and how to caption the visual material. Each photograph, photocopy, or scanned image should appear on a single sheet of paper unless two images and their captions will fit on a single sheet of paper with one inch margins on all sides. Note also that the title of a work of art is always italicized. Within the text, the reference to the illustration is enclosed in parentheses and placed at the end of the sentence. A period for the sentence comes after the parenthetical reference to the illustration. For UALR art history papers, illustrations are placed at the end of the paper, not within the text. Illustration are not supplied as a Powerpoint presentation or as separate .jpgs submitted in an electronic format.
Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream, dated 1893, represents a highly personal, expressive response to an experience the artist had while walking one evening (Figure 1).
The caption that accompanies the illustration at the end of the paper would read:
Figure 1. Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893. Tempera and casein on cardboard, 36 x 29″ (91.3 x 73.7 cm). Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway.
Plagiarism is a form of thievery and is illegal. According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, to plagiarize is to “take and pass off as one’s own the ideas, writings, etc. of another.” Barnet has some useful guidelines for acknowledging sources in his chapter “Manuscript Form;” review them so that you will not be mguilty of theft. Another useful website regarding plagiarism is provided by Cornell University, http://plagiarism.arts.cornell.edu/tutorial/index.cfm
Plagiarism is a serious offense, and students should understand that checking papers for plagiarized content is easy to do with Internet resources. Plagiarism will be reported as academic dishonesty to the Dean of Students; see Section VI of the Student Handbook which cites plagiarism as a specific violation. Take care that you fully and accurately acknowledge the source of another author, whether you are quoting the material verbatim or paraphrasing. Borrowing the idea of another author by merely changing some or even all of your source’s words does not allow you to claim the ideas as your own. You must credit both direct quotes and your paraphrases. Again, Barnet’s chapter “Manuscript Form” sets out clear guidelines for avoiding plagiarism.