Art Labels at the Science Museum

Digital and mobile labels

Rebecca Atkinson, 17.10.2011
From iPads to QR codes, this article looks at digital labels

Back in 2006, a collaboration between the University of Leicester’s museum studies department, Xor Systems and Simulacra launched Live!Labels, a seven-month project to build, demonstrate and evaluate a prototype of a wireless digital label that could stream live information about objects into the gallery.

The labels, which were piloted at Leicester’s New Walk Museum and Art Gallery and the National Space Centre, as well as the Natural History Museum in London, were designed to be easily edited so information could be quickly updated or tailored for a specific event.

Although the content of the labels was controlled by the museum, visitors’ views (from school workshops or comment cards) could also be added in order to provide interaction and dialogue.

In a paper about the project (see link at bottom), Ross Parry and Mayra Ortiz-Williams from the University of Leicester and museum consultant Andrew Sawyer note that while many museums have introduced digital media into galleries, these interventions have historically been quite separate and “discrete" from displays.

Evaluation found that while Live!Labels were not distracting nor seen as out of place in the galleries, many visitors did not realise that the labels were live and changing.

Live!Labels has since evolved and extended into the LIVE!Museum initiative, exploring the possibilities of combining the online with the on-site experience to create a “live” museum environment. The project has also paved the way for other museums to experiment with digital labels.

The Grant Museum of Zoology, part of the University College London (UCL) museums and collections, looked at offering something similar to Live!Labels when it moved into a new space earlier this year. Mark Carnall, the museum’s acting manager and curator, says the original idea was to replace all printed labels with digital labels.

“[Traditional] labels take time to print, they are not very flexible and there’s not much space for information,” he adds. “Digital labels would give us the ability to tailor information.”

It was eventually decided that an entirely digital label approach was not the way to go. Instead, the museum is taking part in a UCL-collaborative project called QRator, which aims to develop new kinds of content co-curated by the public, curators and academics, to enhance interpretation and community engagement, and establish new connections to museum exhibit content.

Ten iPads have been installed in front of 10 display cases; rather than provide more information about each object in each case, the digital labels are intended to provoke discussion and address different questions relating to natural history.

“Natural history museums can be lazy with labels partly because of the low barriers of entry – interpretation tends to point out facts about things,” says Carnall.

“But there is a lot more information that could be shared with visitors in terms of what objects represent and our ethical responsibilities as museums. We wanted to raise this issue and also break down the idea that science is black and white and that visitors aren’t able to have opinions.”

Each iPad asks visitors a different question such as:
  • What makes an animal British?
  • Is it acceptable to use models, casts and replicas in museums? 
  • Should human and animal remains be treated any differently in museums?
Visitors can add their opinions to the iPads either in the museum or remotely via Twitter or the main QRator website. Comments are moderated before they go live.

Although critical evaluation of the project has not yet been carried out, anecdotal evidence suggests the majority of users are engaging with the question rather than just making general or unrelated points. The museum plans to regularly update the questions and try to disseminate some of the comments raised to show visitors that what they think does feed into its work.  

Carnall says that providing digital labels for every object in the museum is unrealistic and may not even be all that useful as not everyone will be able or willing to use them.

While some museums, such as the Museum of Croydon, do use digital labels as the main source of interpretation, others use a mixture of digital and printed labels.

Joe Cutting, a museum consultant and exhibition developer, says digital labels work particularly well for large objects that need more complex interpretation. He created digital labels for commissioned digital art in the Science Museum's energy gallery after evaluation showed that visitors wanted more information about contemporary artworks than print labels would allow.

The art labels follow the same format and address five key points: what the artwork is; who made it; why the artist made it; why it’s in the energy gallery; and what questions it raises. Each button leads to a page of text and sometimes an image.

Cutting says: “It’s also better to have each label only refer to one or a small number of objects. This may mean that museums need a number of smaller screens but this also has the advantage that more people can use the labels at once.”

Importantly, the Science Museum’s digital art labels were built as a software template, which means the museum can change the content in-house and add additional labels for new artworks.


A year or so ago, QR codes were still relatively unknown but now these barcodes have entered the mainstream and are being used in advertising, newspapers and even printed books.

A QR code is a square pattern of black blocks against a white background. In the same way that barcodes on supermarket and other retail products link to a stock database, QR codes provide a link to online content about an object. QR-code software can be installed on smartphones and other internet devices to scan and “read” the codes before opening the relevant link.

For museums, this offers a relatively easy way for visitors to access additional information about an object while standing in front of it. By linking objects to editable online content (without any size restrictions), museums can offer multi-layered interpretation on-demand.

While not every visitor will be able (or willing) to use QR codes, they are relatively cheap to develop and have the additional advantage of incentivising museums to ensure they have comprehensive database infrastructures in place.

Derby Museum and Art Gallery is currently testing QR codes via the multilingual QRPedia, which links QR-coded objects to Wikipedia articles.

As its GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives & Museums) WikiProject page describes, items were chosen based on how easy they were to add a code to. The museum says that one of the benefits of QR codes over static labels is that they can be updated to reflect news and events.

The Museum of London is looking to introduce QR codes, and is also testing another mobile phone technology called new field communication (NFC). This chip-based software means visitors can hold their NFC-enabled phones over exhibition labels and get access to more information about objects online.

Vicky Lee, the Museum of London’s marketing manager, says NFC technology has the potential to change how the museum interacts with visitors. “By simply touching tags located throughout both our venues, visitors can delve deeper into London’s story in an immediate and engaging way,” she explains.  

Mobile phone apps can also be used to offer additional information and interpretation to visitors with smartphones, but museums are first looking at offering mobile versions of their websites.

Coggapp, a digital media agency based in Brighton, recently worked on a major redesign of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website, which included a new mobile site.

The mobile site is targeted at visitors who use their mobile phones during a visit – like Live!Labels, the idea is to offer additional information about objects but via mobiles phones rather than digital labels.

Ben Rubinstein, technical director at Cogapp, says this approach is an alternative to QR codes, which can look quite "ugly" and also have to be printed onto labels.

Elsewhere, the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania has done away with wall labels altogether; visitors are instead issued with free iPods that provide information about artworks and additional material such as interviews with the artists.

The system – known as The O – provides visitors with as much or as little information about each piece as they want, and can be saved and retrieved after their visit online.

While some visitors will no doubt find the lack of labels liberating, others will find it confusing. But museums will never be able to please everyone with their approach to labels – offering layered interpretation through digital means is one way to enable people to delve deeper during their visit.





Derby Museum and Art Gallery GLAM WikiProject

NFC chips at the Museum of London (YouTube video)

QR codes in Derby Museum (YouTube video)