Rebecca Atkinson

A curator walks into a pub…

Rebecca Atkinson, 12.07.2013
Can museum labels be funny?
Laughing is good for us – alongside many other health benefits, splitting your sides apparently relaxes the body and mind, boosts the immune system and prevents heart disease.

Museums are also good for mental and physical wellbeing, as demonstrated in the Museums Association’s recent report Museums Change Lives.

There are many examples of humour being used effectively in galleries and museums – from Tate Britain’s comic art exhibition, Rude Britannia, to talking toilets in ss Great Britain.

But the use of humour on museum labels and interpretation panels is less common.

Most of the examples my colleagues came up with are from solo artist exhibitions – Grayson Perry at the British Museum, Peter Blake at the Holburne Museum and David Shrigley at Manchester’s Cornerhouse all had some funny captions.

I suspect that museums feel more confident about using humour in labels aimed at children. The Horrible Histories: Spies exhibition at Imperial War Museum London, which opens later this month, promises plenty of opportunities for laughter – stories include exploding camel poo and irritating itching powder.

At yesterday's MP seminar on writing effective text, delegates and speakers were stumped when asked to give an example of funny museum text.

Someone gave the example of Roman graffiti on display in the British Museum’s Pompeii exhibition, but it’s not the same thing.

There are probably countless examples of unintentional humour – I found this blog on mixed up labels in a Chinese museum via Google and Nina Simon has also written about “fun” labels on her blog.

But have any museums actually experimented with using humour more widely in their labels?

Can humourous labels work (there’s nothing worse than a rubbish joke or pun) and, if so, why don’t more museums do this? After all, museums and laughter are not just good for our health – they can cross cultural and language barriers to create connections between people.

I’d love to hear people’s views on this and, hopefully, some examples of funny museum labels.


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MA Member
09.09.2013, 15:08
Humour is indeed used in the Dinosaur Gallery of the Natural History Museum (created in the 1990's) in the form of several cartoons exploring the reasons for the extinction of the dinosaurs (although now it is a little outdated).

Do people really worry that humour dumbs down museums?! Only if the humour is puerile or replacing something that would otherwise have effectively contextualised the subject matter in hand. Lack of information, pointless OTT design that obscures the objects and broken or poor interactives are far worse!
Lucy Trench
Interpretation Editor, Victoria & Albert Museum
25.07.2013, 17:22
I love humour but for my taste it has to be low key and slightly ironic. One of my V&A favourites was written many years ago by Mark Haworth-Booth. Perhaps surprisingly we had no complaints, and I hope it made lots of people happy.

Here is the image:

And here is our label:

On the Deck of the Dahu II
Lartigue was the world’s greatest master of snapshot photography. This work, photographed on board a yacht, particularly appealed to Bruce Bernard. He once discussed it with Lartigue, who told him that one of the naked women was his wife – but he was not sure which.

Subhadra Das
MA Member
Curator, Teaching & Research Collections, UCL Museums and Collections
02.08.2013, 15:06
It makes me very happy indeed - thank you for sharing!
Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
26.07.2013, 10:09
Thanks Lucy, this is great. I think using second-hand jokes from artists (or similar) is a really good way of injecting humour into museums.

I remember seeing a similar label years ago in one of the London galleries for a Pierre Bonnard painting of a female nude - it included a quote by one of Bonnard's friends about his partner Marthe, noting their peculiar relationship.

It made me laugh, but also made the art suddenly seem so much more real and human. I just wish I could remember what the joke was!
Chris Durham
Deputy Director, New England Regional Art Museum
25.07.2013, 10:11
Hi Rebecca

A recent exhibition at our art museum ( titled Sign & Symbols, where we put in some unlabelled and odd works not normally on display, promoted me to include what I hope would be considered a humours label (text copied in below)

Sometimes signs and symbolic images can be obscure if not totally bewildering or have associations other than what they were originally created for. The artists on this wall are clearly trying to convey something but we have no bloody idea!
We want to know what you think…
What is your interpretation of these works?

Most people have responded well to the intentions of the label and the humour so I am all in favour of using humour in exhibition labels and I think there should be more of it!
Chris Durham
Deputy Director
katy Melville
Museum Education Officer, Warrington Museum and Art Gallery
23.07.2013, 10:47
In the past I have set up table-top activities for visitors where intriguing items from the social history handling collections have been labelled with Call my Bluff type clues. This has proved amusing and less daunting for adult visitors who are fearful they may not know what something is. Children have invented their own clues for artefacts. Other ideas we have toyed with in sessions with children is inventing uses for artefacts, creating suitable names for exotic and quirky looking creatures and unfamiliar toys....
Jan Dawson
Exhibition Designer, National Museums Scotland
18.07.2013, 14:09
I think the problem is that humour is so subjective. Perhaps museums are too scared of the consequences ('dumbing down', anyone?) or of causing offence. After all, the people who laugh will be much less likely to feedback to the museum than those who don't get the joke...

It's a pity, the possibilities are endless.
Subhadra Das
MA Member
Curator, Teaching & Research Collections, UCL Museums and Collections
02.08.2013, 15:18
I agree that fear of the 'dumbing down' accusation is something that stops people from taking the humour leap in museum interpretation.

My response to them would be to quote David Mitchell (not the novelist, the other one) who said this when he appeared on Desert Island Discs in July 2009:

"There are some people who think comedy is frivolous and is less important than other things, and I am horrified by that opinion. I think that anyone really intelligent understands and appreciates that the funny must be part of anything."

This might have been a stronger argument if David Mitchell was a renowned expert in museum communication rather than a professional comedian, but we've got to start somewhere.
17.07.2013, 14:58
Many years ago I saw an archaeological find in an exhibition labelled simply 'God knows - we don't'.
MA Member
17.07.2013, 08:58
I think most museum curators and interpretation staff are so busy trying to make text as accessible as possible they don't really consider making it funny. Does making a joke which people don't understand count as un-accessible?
I think the training courses for humorous interpretation could be a lot of fun though. Night at the comedy club anyone?
Philip Howe
MA Member
Director, South Canterbury Museum
17.07.2013, 00:51
in 2009 I was quite taken by the use of "manga"-style cartoon labels used in a very effective object-rich exhibition about Ainu traditional life and Ainu-Japanese relations and history in the Asahikawa City Museum in Hokkaido, Japan. Although I couldn't read the text, the images seem to convey both humour and drama in a way that I assume younger readers in particular would have found engaging.
13.07.2013, 23:27
Humor can be difficult to judge. There is very little that is universal when it come to humour, or maybe curators aren't that funny. Something sick and twisted in us if we love Museums?
I have also wondered why Museums haven't used comic book style text panels for almost the same reasons, would be very useful way of getting a point across and maybe using the graphics to provide humour?
MA Member
12.07.2013, 19:50
I definitely think that there is a place for humour in the gallery which could be explored more. I thought that the general feeling from the speakers at the seminar yesterday was that as museum text is becoming more informal and creative there is more opportunity to appeal to a visitor's funny, whimsical side and this can enrich their experience. This is more likely to be successful if the text is light hearted, humorous or fun as opposed to setting out to tell a joke, which is culturally subjective and quite aggressive in a way, and could have an isolating affect. Also, it seems like a lot of the examples of this working are from fantastic interpretation by non museum professionals. Curators can't tell jokes anyway.
Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
12.07.2013, 11:51
Subhadra Das, curator of UCL's teaching and research collections, has written about this issue on her blog, which includes a presentation advocating the use of humour as a means of improving museum communication.
Jack Ashby
MA Member
Manager, Grant Museum of Zoology
18.07.2013, 09:25
This is a really interesting question. At the Grant Museum at UCL we've had a bit of a play with adding a few tongue-in-cheek labels among more traditional ones, and it seems to work. In evaluation and spontaneous commenting, visitors regularly show their appreciation for a curatorial sense of humour. They seem to get that a Victorian collection of dead animals can be fun as well as educational.
For example, in a display about the comparative anatomy of brains, among 40-50 brains in jars is a huge brain coral with the text "This is not a brain". It's a response to our observations of many visitors pointing at it and saying "Oooh, look at that huge brain".
Also, the Flying Lemur is interpretted: "This is not a lemur and it cannot fly".