The Museum Column

cultural intelligence, exhibit reviews, museum news

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Four tips and techniques for writing engaging labels

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

7th millennium BC

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

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

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


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.

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Context for on-line visitor research — two tips

The digital age opens new vistas on who we can ask to participate in exhibit making. No longer are we restricted to asking the public for their participation in a familiar museum setting, a focus group facility, or a nearby shopping mall or community centre. On line, we can ask anyone, anywhere, for their ideas. But who are we talking to, how do we contextualize the information we are receiving? Here are two things I have been thinking about.

We have always relied so much on demographics to contextualize audience research. We so often select who we would like to ask questions of based on demographic characteristics. Then, results are also analysed by demographic segmentation. When we start researching on-line perhaps some demographic questions can be asked up front to define the field of respondents, but how reliable is this information when it is not supplied in person? How do we know who we are talking to?

And so, I was intrigued to see a questionnaire from the Australian National Maritime Museum. This museum was seeking opinions about what a new exhibition on whales should be like.

Whale watching in Hervey Bay Australia by eGuide.  Flickr.

Whale watching in Hervey Bay Australia by eGuide. Flickr.

No demographic information is asked for. Instead, respondents were asked to fit themselves into a category based on their “Museum Personality”. Here are a couple of selections:

“Learning is Fun” — I love learning but it should be fun for me and my family

“Box Ticker” — I am always looking for something new to do and experience

This self-selected visitor-centred method of knowing a bit about who is participating in the research study likely provided useful context to the design team responsible for creating the whales exhibition.

Continuing with the idea of context, when you are asking someone for their opinion, it is respectful to them, and ultimately helpful in stimulating conversation, to provide some context for your questions. Ontario’s public television channel, TVO, does this effectively for an on-line forum called Pull. To set the stage for their regular on-line debates, they provide 90 second videos that they call “primers”.

I think a primer video or two, along with an on-line questionnaire, such as the one used by the National Maritime Museum of Australia, would make an excellent pairing for context-rich on-line visitor research. What do you think? It would be good to hear about your tips for on-line visitor research. Thanks!

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Create an interpretive plan in 9 easy steps

What is an interpretive plan?

An interpretive plan is a document that outlines how an exhibition intends to engage with the public. It is created early in the process of planning an exhibit.

Step One
Review and understand the context.

-read the museum’s annual report, strategic plan, or any other documents that state how the museum wants to relate to the public
-read or watch popular books and videos about the subject of the exhibit (National Geographic, YouTube, etc. — any source that presents information on the topic of the exhibit in a way that is easily understood by a general audience)

Step Two
Get to know the collections that can be used for the exhibit.

-iconic “must haves”

Herpetology collection (that means snakes!). Photo credit: iStock

Herpetology collection (that means snakes!). Photo credit: iStock

Step Three
Understand the audience and stakeholders

-look at existing audience research (if there is any)
-make a plan for engaging audiences in the planning process
-find out who the stakeholders are (staff, senior managers, Members, Boards, those whose history is represented, educators etc.) and talk to them.

Step Four
Elaborate goals and objectives
(So much has been written about goals and objectives, that I will not go into all that again here.)

Step Five
Generate ideas (about the content and how to express it).

Step six
Group ideas into a structure and make sure that you have singled out the “big ideas” that will lead the way. Possible structures could be:

This type of diagram is known in the exhibit trade as a bubble diagram.  It shows how visitors will navigate through ideas and is the precursor to the floor plan.

This type of diagram is known in the exhibit trade as a bubble diagram. It shows how visitors will navigate through ideas and is the precursor to the floor plan.

Step Seven
Discuss the quality of the experience you would like to create for visitors and think about the various media (in addition to collections) you would like to use to express the ideas.

Step Eight
Know your space. It will impact how you divide up the ideas, how many collections will fit, and how many choices visitors may have as they move around in it.

-analyse the size, ceiling height, entrances and exits, light sources, surfaces, changes in elevation, subdivisions

Photo credit: iStock

Photo credit: iStock

Step Nine
Create interpretive plan!

The document will look like this:


Here is an excellent new book about exhibit-making:

McKenna-Cress, Polly and Janet Kamien. Creating Exhibitions: Collaboration in the Planning, Development and Design of Innovative Experiences. New Jersey: Wiley & Sons 2013

Does this interpretive planning process for exhibits remind you of planning processes for other media?