Rethinking museum labels - Museums Association

Rethinking museum labels

Changes in attitudes are prompting many museums to reconsider tone, format and role
Caroline Parry
Exhibition labels are changing. As we head into the third decade of the 21st century, this staple of the museum and gallery sector is facing new challenges.

Traditionally, labels have contained relevant information about objects and artworks with interpretation grounding the item into the overall narrative of the exhibition or gallery.

But there have been significant shifts in society’s thinking and attitudes on a variety of issues that are causing some institutions to reconsider the format of labels, the language used and the role they play in broader interpretation.

Across the sector, there is a greater focus on the social impact that museums can make. Awareness of democratic and participatory practices, through campaigns such as the Museums Association’s (MA) Museums Change Lives initiative, is growing and venues are increasingly co-producing and embedding non-traditional voices and accessibility into the heart of their practice.

Visitors are also demanding more immersive and experience-led exhibitions as technology plays an increasing role in our lives. Meanwhile, the climate crisis, decolonisation, and movements such as #MeToo are changing our beliefs, actions and expectations.
And visitors are demanding a greater say in interpretation, reflecting a growing recognition in the sector and wider society that museums are not neutral and benefit from a multiplicity of voices.

“There will always be a role for labels in permanent galleries and exhibitions, but there will always be limitations too,” says Ollie Douglas, the assistant curator at the University of Reading’s Museum of English Rural Life (Merl), which overhauled its galleries and interpretation in 2015.

A primary communication tool

At their most basic, labels are a primary tool of communication with visitors and have always evolved as visitor expectations have changed.

Sarah Creed, the curator of the recently open Vagina Museum in London, believes that the role of the label is purely to ground an object into the broader narrative of an exhibition.

“Labels are not vital for interpretation,” she says. “Interpretation is so multi-layered now.”

For larger, and arguably more traditional organisations, labels remain the main tool used to interpret objects for visitors.

The format and the way labels are used at London’s Science Museum has changed little over the years, but their content has moved on considerably.

“Our labels in the early-20th century often conveyed technical information about how the objects work through text and diagrams,” says Jessica Bradford, the Science Museum’s keeper of collections engagement.

“Today, most visitors have no specialist knowledge and are coming to be inspired by the wonder of science and its role in our lives.”

Empowering visitors

London’s Wellcome Collection aims for all its interpretation to be intellectually and physically accessible and, above all, relatable to any age.

Shamita Sharmacharja, the curator of temporary exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection, says the labels aim to give visitors enough information to come to their own conclusions about objects.

Captions are limited to 50-60 words, feature tombstone details (the basics of what the object is, the date it was made, and who by), and address one or two key topics, avoiding any jargon.

The Wellcome Collection uses a minimum type size of 3.5mm, which is equivalent to 18-point Arial font, and positioned at a height between 1m and 1.35m maximum with wheelchair users in mind.

This year the museum will add braille and British Sign Language content and audio interpretation to its Being Human permanent gallery.

“It has to be all about variety,” says Kate Forde, the head of exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection. “Giving content for people of different levels, abilities and interests, and offering different ways of consuming text is about properly living up to our ambitions.”

Multiple stories and voices

Using labels to bring new and multiple voices to exhibitions (instead of, or in addition to, a curator’s) is becoming more common as museums seek to become more inclusive, accessible and democratic.

Museums also often use this approach when dealing with problematic histories, where interpretation may include language that is no longer appropriate or is derogatory and hurtful.

The Pitt Rivers Museum, part of Oxford University, is addressing this through its Labelling Matters Project.

Marenka Thompson-Odlum, the researcher managing this project, has been deconstructing the language used in labels, particularly how they depict the creators of the objects and cultures from which they originate, as well as whose voice is featured.

The aim is to create more inclusive labels, but also to reveal the power structures that led to many objects ending up in the museum’s collection. Offensive words have been blanked out, although most of the content remains unchanged, with visitors “briefed” ahead of their visit so they are prepared to read this terminology.

The Wellcome Collection encountered challenging histories during the development of its Being Human gallery, which opened last September.

“We are a medical museum that has a history of presenting objects through a medical lens, but also one with a history of presenting disabled people in inappropriate ways,” Forde says.

“We have tried to interrogate that and be aware, so that we did not reproduce it in the new gallery. We have paid very close attention to the language, but it is a fast-moving picture.”

Lived experience

In summer 2018, Leicester’s New Walk Museum and Art Gallery worked with refugees from its local community on a relabelling takeover of its permanent collection. Many members of the group, which met at the museum for a creative writing class, had never seen the displays before.

According to Angela Stienne, a museum researcher from the University of Leicester, which led the takeover, the group felt the museum was not “meant for them”. But during their visit, the group of refugees connected with the World Arts Gallery, with many telling emotional stories linked to the objects.

Each person picked an object from the museum and then wrote a new label. The text was written solely by the refugee and was not edited.

Stienne says the group were not only excited to see their own stories in the exhibition, but it also opened them up to the museum.

“It highlighted the importance and benefits of community engagement,” she says. “But it also showed that it is possible to change the conversation and disrupt the narrative with limited resources and budget. A small project can be a big deal.”

Lived experience also plays a vital role in Being Human, says Forde. To shape the text, the team worked with a text consultant and several different groups, including creative company and charity Heart n Soul, which is led by autistic people and those with learning disabilities.

“All labels must be written with care, but particularly when you are describing a lived experience,” Forde says. “You have to be careful to use people’s own words. We have used many directly-attributed quotes.”

Creed, from the Vagina Museum, says it is crucial to involve community groups if they are part of the subject matter.

“You gain an added layer of interpretation and perspective, “ she says. “But it is important to involve community groups from the very beginning.”

Layering stories

The Cardiff Museum, which opened in 2011, was produced in collaboration with the local community. Victoria Rogers, the museum manager who was the recipient of the MA’s Museums Change Lives Radical Changemaker award in 2019, says the consultation led to a remit of telling the story of ordinary people in the Welsh capital.

“Our interpretation has been community focused from the get-go,” she says. “People wanted the bad and the good – an honest account of Cardiff that is object and story-rich.”

These stories are told through labels in the form of flipbooks and touchscreens. “Both aim to effectively use different types of evidence to build up a picture of the object.”

To do this, the museum works with local newspapers, other museums and libraries, and the Glamorgan Archives. “We are assigning multiple people’s stories to an object, not just the story of the donor,” Rogers says.

Permanent challenges

There is more flexibility in temporary exhibitions to be innovative in their approach to labels and interpretation; it is more challenging to design progressive labels with longevity in permanent galleries and exhibits.

“In permanent galleries, labels should last between 10 and 25 years, but we are already noticing things that are missing through shifts in the narrative,” says Merl’s Douglas.

It is rare for interpretation in permanent galleries to be edited on an ongoing basis, or for labels to be designed to make that possible.

There is often tension with designers, who like attractive labels, says Douglas, but they are more expensive and are therefore much less flexible in terms of changing content. Cheaper, flexible solutions tend to be less sleek in design.

Online and digital tools offer one solution to addressing gaps or including additional stories and voices, he says.

Merl is undertaking a designation project around decolonisation and the British empire in collaboration with a variety of groups. The finished work will be available online.

Other digital solutions such as QR codes, mobile apps, and touchscreens have also been in various settings, but museums are finding these approaches often come with limitations too.

Cardiff’s Rogers says information on its touchscreens can be updated, but there is an expectation that the screens should do more than just offering interpretation, such as allowing visitors to upload their own stories.

“That comes with challenges such as moderation, integrating it with the main curatorial system, and so on. We have to ask ourselves what is feasible. It would be amazing to allow visitors to do that, but we don’t have the staff to support it.”

Douglas predicts that the future will be a blend of permanent labels, digital work and social media accounts signposted through links on the gallery floor.

But the connection between fixed labels and digital solutions, such as augmented reality, is not yet fluid or user-friendly enough, Douglas says.

Those working in the sector understand that the way stories are told in museums has shifted dramatically over the past 10 years, says the Vagina Museum’s Creed, who has worked at institutions such as British Museum and the Imperial War Museum.

“There is an understanding that labelling and wider interpretation has moved on,” she says. “It is a huge undertaking, however, like digitisation. But at least it has begun.”

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