Museums are about teaching and learning in different ways. People learn at museums through what they see, touch, hear, smell, and read. Reading is one way museums connect with visitors and tell stories of what links everything in this space together. Since the audience of a museum educator is 2-92 years old, with readers ranging from beginners to most advanced, the written language of an exhibit label serve a key purpose.
Labels in museum are not essays or articles cut up and pasted on walls. Labels are important pieces of the museum experience because they provide interpretations, atmosphere, mood, tone, design, and visual appeal. Labels should be conversational, as if the reader is listening to a friend.
Beverly Serrell, museum studies/education professional, says, “The overall goals for a visitor-friendly label style are to appeal to a broad audience, to be used by the majority of visitors, and to create positive experiences for them” (pg. 83). Museums struggle with this overall goal often when it comes to exhibit labels, no matter if they are on-site or online.
There are many online exhibits that help demonstrate exhibit labels basics. I found two examples that are fantastic in their own unique ways. The first example is a Holocaust Museum Online Exhibit featuring the story ofEl Salvador’s Consul General inGenevaduring World War II, who appointed a Hungarian Jewish business named George Mandel Mantello. Through his position, Mr. Mandel-Mantello issued thousands of citizenship documents to European Jews, hoping to save them from Nazi persecution.
This online exhibit is designed to encourage visitors to find a name, browse through the 1100 Salvadoran citizenship papers of Jews during World War II, and even participate by helping identify those still left unnamed. The exhibit label is concise, engaging, and a well written story. It gives just enough information to get people excited about the story and wanting to dig deeper. This online exhibit is a great example of how valuable museum labels can be when they consider the audience, appeal to many people, and effectively convey a story.
The second example is from the Arizona Historical Society Online Exhibit featuring the dramatic tale of John Dillinger, Public Enemy #1, and his capture inTucson,Arizonain the 1930s. A nice blend of mug shots, arrest photos, buildings visited by Dillinger and his gang, 1930s newspapers, and objects, this online exhibit ties together the story of an American gangster effectively for visitors.
The visual appeal of the online exhibit is impressive, with the design, animation effects, and the mixture of timeline events and historic images. The introductory labels are well crafted but there are few of them. The rest of the exhibit label text is caption information, rather than interpretation. This exhibit is missing that visitor interaction piece that helps provoke learning beyond the duration of the exhibit visit.
Museum educators are an essential part of the label editing team because they often think in terms of multiple audiences. Museum educators are notorious for telling different versions of the same joke over and over. Powerful, stimulating, and thought provoking language are important for interpretive exhibit labels and museum educators can help craft the written words to accompany the three dimensional part of the story.
Serrell, Beverly. Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach. Walnut Creek: Alta Mira Press, 1996.