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What makes a great museum label?

The best museum labels do more than provide information. A great museum label takes its reader on a revelatory journey, reframing perceptions along the way and provoking a lasting reaction.

Swarupa Anila, Director of Interpretative Engagement at the Detroit Institute of Arts and juror for the American Alliance of Museums Excellence in Exhibition Label Writing Competition, sums up just how powerful a single label can be: ‘A brilliant label sweeps you into a bodily experience. Eyes widen. Breath stops. Skin rises to goose bumps. Heartbeat quickens. You look around and feel you’re seeing a world that never existed before that moment.’

Effective museum labels anticipate and answer visitors’ unspoken questions about the artwork or object they accompany. At the same time they forge emotional connections with those visitors. It’s obvious, then, that anyone writing gallery or exhibition labels needs detailed knowledge in two areas: the objects themselves and the visitors who will be looking at them. Plus, they need a clear goal that defines what they hope visitors might think, feel or do in response.

A well-worded label meets the visitor in familiar territory, using concepts and terminology that feel like second nature, before revealing a new, and relevant, perspective.

In just a sentence or two, a good object label equips visitors with the tools to look back at the object and draw their own new conclusions about it, conclusions that will be influenced as much by each visitor’s unique experiences as by the museum’s words.

How museum labels reveal other worlds

Consider this sentence, taken from a label stretched between two artefacts in the dinosaur gallery at London’s Natural History Museum:

Dinosaur Interpretation

When I first read this label, I found myself acting out the movements of these long-dead creatures, imagining my own hands equipped with spikes and claws. It made me look more closely at the remnants of the two dinosaurs and encouraged me to consider how each might have used its in-built tool.

These twenty-one words are effective because they combine three elements: familiarity, focus and visualisation. Aside from the names of the dinosaurs, the words are familiar ones I can relate to, which makes for a quick and easy read. The meaning is clear because the text focuses in on just one aspect of the fossils. My thoughts are therefore unencumbered by competing pieces of information. Finally, the use of active terms helps me visualise how these animals, which took their last breaths over 100,000 years ago, might have lived and interacted with one another.

The following paragraph also paints a picture of a very different world. It comes from a label at the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth, which houses a sixteenth-century warship:

The Medieval Machine Gun

Lightweight and portable, the English longbow was the super-weapon of its time. Accurate at distances over 200 metres, an archer could shoot over 12 arrows every minute. Shot in volleys, these arrows created an inescapable and deadly cloud.

The title and first line incorporate a modern analogy – another use of familiarity – to give new meaning to these 500-year-old weapons. A snippet of factual information then reveals how powerful a longbow could be. The final eight words, like the active terms in the dinosaur label, help us visualise what it might be like to be on the receiving end of their arrows. Try googling ‘longbow’ and you’d be hard pressed to find such deep insight, even after reading several hundred words online.

Both these labels reveal something to the visitor, and they do so by reinstating some of the context that is lost when objects are placed in a museum. Reinstating that context helps visitors understand the origin, purpose, use or impact of an object. Truly great interpretation goes even further: it provokes the visitor in some way.

How museum labels provoke reactions

In his classic book Interpreting our Heritage, first published in 1957, Freeman Tilden defines interpretation as ‘an educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships’. Tilden emphasises that while interpretation includes information, it also reveals larger truths about the world, just like a well-written story.

Stories can, of course, be entertaining but, for Tilden, the chief aim of museum interpretation is to provoke. Interpretation, he suggests, should inspire a visitor to want to know more and encourage them to search out meanings for themselves, ‘join[ing] in the expedition like a fellow discoverer’. In particular, visitors often have the opportunity to question how they would react in a similar situation.

This questioning is explicit in the opening lines of this label from the Like Me: Our Bond with Brands exhibition at The Design Museum, London:

interpretation design museum

The label goes on to share the results of a research study, which found people would pay significantly less for Clooney’s sweater if they couldn’t tell anyone about it, even less if it had been washed.

Combining that information with our own answers, we realise a more general point, that people sometimes value the story behind an item, and the ability to share that story, more than the item itself. This realisation might, in turn, provoke us to consider what we personally value or why sharing stories is such a fundamental part of human nature.

Each of these three labels reframes our initial view of an object, but here the reframing is, again, explicit. If we don’t read the label, we see a plain old sweater, to which we wouldn’t usually give a second glance. If we read the label, we reframe our view of the sweater as something potentially valuable.

How museum labels reframe perspectives

When we frame information about an object we focus attention on certain aspects of that object or its history. It’s just like choosing a new frame for a painting, which then highlights different qualities of the artwork. Framing is less about the information we feature in a label and more about how we present that information.

Marketers are the masters of framing information for the greatest impact. For instance, describing a burger as ’90 per cent lean’ will prompt different thoughts and actions than saying it has ’10 per cent fat’, even though both statements derive from the same basic data.

In museums, reframing can be a result of choosing to display an item in the first place or of multiple interpretation decisions across an entire exhibition. Sometimes even a single word can reorient our thoughts. As MuseumNext speaker Seth Godin has written, ‘How should I judge this’, is something we ask ourselves all the time. When you make the effort to give us a hint, we’ll often take the hint’.

Take the black and white photograph, just 14 by 11 inches, displayed in a 2018 exhibition at Delaware Art Museum (DAM) in Wilmington. Some visitors will instantly recognise the scene and its significance. At my first glance, I saw what looked like a sink in the corner of an empty room. Yet choosing to place this photograph in a gallery is, in itself, an act of framing. It suggests there must be something special or important about this place or about the photograph that has been taken of it. It is more, I am led to think, than simply an architectural study.

The exhibition label for the image is a masterclass in how to reveal, reframe and provoke. It starts off with the title:

Segregated drinking fountains in the county courthouse in Albany, Georgia, 1962

In just ten words and a date, this reveals a lot. I realise that my perceived sink is in fact a water fountain. I realise there are even two water fountains in the scene, one far smaller and less accessible than the other. Most importantly, the very first word acts as a frame that changes my perception again, because I realise each fountain has been demarcated for use by a particular group. Looking back at the photograph, my eyes are now drawn to the signs placed above each fountain; one says ‘WHITE’, the other ‘COLORED’.

Those ten words give new meaning to the photograph, but the rest of the label reveals even more about the world it represents. Written in the first person, these 150 words tell the true story of a six-year-old girl and her encounter with a similar water fountain:

Mame was the strongest, smartest most beautiful woman in my six year old world. On Saturdays she took me with her to the hair dresser and afterwards on a short stroll to Atlanta’s municipal market. The market was alive with smells, and voices. Mame would treat me to a hot dog and a bag of warm roasted peanuts. Once while eating the peanuts, I needed water. Looking about, I spotted the fountain which had small wooded steps on one side so that children could climb up to fill tiny paper cups. Feeling pretty brave, I went to the fountain and started to climb the steps. Mame tackled me as I reached the top step and lifted me to a tiny bowl where she turned on the water spigot, and in a quivering voice announced that “this one is for us.” Her voice frightened me—it was barely audible, awakening something for which I had no name.

These are the words of African American writer Melva Ware. Ware was one of several people invited by DAM to share personal perspectives when the Museum hosted a travelling show of Danny Lyon’s photographs. As part of a wider programme marking the fiftieth anniversary of uprisings in Wilmington following the assassination of Martin Luther King, DAM wanted to include a plurality of voices in the show and, in particular, local voices.

While the title frames the photograph as a symbol of racial inequality at a specific time and place, Ware’s personal perspective shifts our thoughts to the impact of such inequality on the lives of ordinary people. For anyone who shares similar experiences, Ware’s words will resonate and reframe in myriad other ways.

Like any good story, this one helps us imagine ourselves right there. It even gets our senses buzzing. We hear the hustle and bustle of the market, smell the hot dog and warm peanuts and feel the comfort of being close to someone we trust. Finally, we appreciate the confusion, fear and loss of innocence experienced by Ware at the moment she is redirected to the smaller fountain – an experience likely to provoke a range of different emotions, depending on our own experiences and views.

Offering revelation, reframing and provocation, it’s no surprise this label was one of the winners of the 2019 Excellence in Exhibition Label Writing Competition. But did it work in practice? As any interpreter knows, many museum visitors don’t read labels at all, while others only check out the title. However, exit surveys at DAM showed that almost eight out of ten visitors read these ‘community contribution’ labels. A third stated that reading them changed how they saw the photographs in the exhibition.

Danny lyons melva ware interpretation Delaware Art Museum

Part of the success of these labels was, says Amelia Wiggins, Assistant Director of Learning & Engagement at DAM, down to involving the right people as contributors. Wiggins advises anyone wanting to follow DAM’s example to start off doing two things: 1. Be clear on your goals and the perspectives you want to incorporate, and 2. Listen.

Developing close ties with communities and community leaders, says Wiggins, enables you to bring in their perspectives at an early stage of exhibition development, while clarity of purpose will help you choose appropriate collaborators and brief them effectively.

For the Danny Lyons exhibit, Ware and her fellow contributors were brought together at the Museum to select the images they wished to respond to. They were then given a fairly open brief in terms of the label text: to write one or two paragraphs that shared a personal response, a memory, a reaction, a question or a call to action, all written in the first person or as if writing to a friend.

DAM are now integrating community-created content into all their interpretation for special exhibits. I can’t wait to see how their approach pays off in even more labels that reveal, reframe and provoke.

About the author – Anna Faherty

Anna Faherty is a writer, trainer and consultant who collaborates with museums to find and share stories in an eclectic range of exhibition, digital and print projects. She shares her passion for audience-focused approaches to content development with students at City University, London and University of the Arts London.

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