The Museum Column

cultural intelligence, exhibit reviews, museum news

Four tips and techniques for writing engaging labels

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Some museum exhibits can have hundreds and hundreds of objects, needing about the same number of labels. The prospect of writing them all can be a bit daunting. And so, here are a few handy techniques and examples that can be applied to labels on any subject matter to help keep things interesting.

1. Include your thinking process

Mask
7th millennium BC
Limestone

Only four masks, all of limestone, have been recovered from the prehistoric periods of this region. The function of these masks in unknown. They have holes for fastening, but were they intended to adorn the living, to honour the dead, or for another purpose entirely?

2. Conjure up an image

Multiple-nozzle lamp
1st century AD
Pottery

An exceptional piece of Early Roman pottery, this oil lamp would have been suspended using the three small holes in the dome, and filled with oil through the large hole in the top. Wicks inserted in the twenty-one nozzles, now blackened by the flames, would have radiated a brilliant light.

3. Invite comparison

Towels
Quebec, 1875 – 1899

These towels are all woven using very coarse “tow” linen. With use and washing they would gradually become softer and whiter. You can see that one has never been used, one has been used quite a bit, and one has had quite a lot of wear.

4. Use quotations from contemporary literature

Carved Ivories

“In Fuijan ivory is carved into human form, the workmanship of which is fine and artful; however, one cannot put them anywhere or give them as decent presents”.

Gao Lian, writer and scholar, 16th century AD

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The Texas Historical Commission’s ten minute video with more tips for writing effective labels is an excellent go-to resource for the basics. This year’s award winning labels from the American Alliance of Museums are really inspiring. They are in the November/December 2013 edition of Museum magazine. What is your tip for writing interesting labels?

attributions: All labels mentioned here were written for exhibitions shown at the Royal Ontario Museum. Labels 1 and 2 are from the temporary exhibition Treasures of the Holy Land, Label 3 is from the temporary exhibition Canada’s Handwoven Heritage, and label 4 is for an object from the Chinese collection.

Author: Christine Lockett

The principal of Christine Lockett Associates: Cultural Intelligence, I bring senior management experience to consulting services for museums and galleries. With The Museum Column blog I will be discussing interesting public programs, mainly exhibits, and the changing relationships among museums and the public realm.

One thought on “Four tips and techniques for writing engaging labels

  1. These tips could be very nicely carried over into other writing to bring focus and life to a project – excellent!

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