Labels in the World of Information Overload (Blog / Graphics )

  • From the museum point of view, they help audience connect to collections
  • Visitors differ in their needs by sector.
  • Designing one label for multiple audiences is impossible
  • Visitor evaluation will help evolve labels to meet new needs
  • Digital content needs to be a priority and purpose-built

While text abounds in museums, the most ubiquitous element of text, the label, is a particularly challenging element in terms of literacy shifts. The label is more likely to be read than any other text in an installation.

Having written literally hundreds and hundreds of labels in my tenure, I have spent a great deal of time thinking of these little bits of text. I spent time trying to cram everything in. I have then moved to pulling out 2-3 good ideas. I have played with the literary labels, descriptive labels, and humorous labels. I have cried about labels (well, not cried, but moaned certainly.)

In earlier eras, when text and knowledge were not omnipresent, labels could offer a single lens look at the art. In the age before phones, labels had little competition as purveyors of knowledge. But, now, visitors are standing next to that bit of vinyl choosing to read your text or use their phone to get information.

What are labels for?

From the point of view of the museum, the label helps the visitor know what the object is and then gain at least one access point. R.J. Loomis suggested that labels are a way to “bridge the knowledge gap” in a 1983 article about the Denver Art Museum (cited here).

Labels are the voice of the museum when a person isn’t standing there. A good interpretation plan, and planner, can do well to consider the idea questions to answer. In my time in museums, we have made several positive changes. Interpretation folks and some curators are doing better at writing in an accessible way, above the vernacular but below the scholarly. We are doing better at using ideas to make people feel smart while not using highfalutin language that makes them feel dumb. We are doing better at helping the whole field work on labels that work for visitors, from the V&A’s label guidelines or the Te Papa’s extensive label and exhibition guidelines.  

In my nearly two decades of label-writing, I have held many truths sacred. For example, I have always used Beverly Serrell’s ten commandments including make it short and sweet and start with a visual reference as benchmarks for my writing.  Like most label writers, I have wanted to find a way to take an idea that I feel is important about the object and make it into something relevant for the visitor.

Each collection object is really a locus of ideas.  The label writer (curator or educator) tries to choose a lens that would increase the appreciation of the object but can be explained in 100 words or less. This is an awesome task, taken in the original sense of the word. You have so many facets you might choose. Even in exhibition labels, where you have a meta-narrative to frame your writing, you have so many possible items to choose as the subject of your label. 

In the best-case scenarios, you, label writer, do your best. You use your professional experience. You also think about your audience. But, here in lies a major challenge for museums. We have different audiences for our labels. Our donors, other scholars and power users of museums have very different needs than our general audiences. Here is a situation where the disparity in the audience needs to be considered when developing a solution.

What is the role of the label from the point of the visitor?

First and foremost, they are looking for a label. The word itself is useful. Outside a museum when you label something, you mark that object with a textual description. Imagine finding a sealed box in your home with the label, “Boxes of this type were well-known in previous period as containing toxic and noxious materials.”

Infrequent visitors might seek labels as they are unfamiliar with the objects. But, similarly, they will be more likely to stop using them if they don’t meet their expectation.  They are hoping to find more about that thing:

  • They might have a question in mind that they hope to have answered.
  • They might want to learn a little
  • They might just want help “getting it”

In other words, their needs are broad. You can’t do it all for them on the paper label.

Looking at it we have a good number of people (Infrequent and regular visitors), who have a need for fairly general information. Within that group, you have a small portion that is especially unlikely to know your norms. This small group, infrequent visitors, is incredibly important. In design, they often say design for the extremes. In other words, pay special care to the people who have special needs, and everyone will feel special. So, when you work hard to make sure your labels meet these infrequent visitors, your regular visitors will win.

But, now to the challenge. Here is one situation when the extremes have drastically different needs. Your labels cannot easily meet both the needs of infrequent visitors and the frequent visitors concurrently. The power-user wants deep, specific information. The majority of the audience want broad, general information. If you use your label for both of these audiences, you are not going to meet the needs of either audience. Your infrequent visitor will be turned off by the depth and your frequent visitor will feel disappointed or even that you are condescending to them.

And, herein is a bigger problem, who are you designing for? You are designing for an audience that consumes more content and more quickly.

What technology have to do with labels? 

First, labels can’t exist in a vacuum. The challenge becomes when the institution’s voice doesn’t address what visitors are asking. That paper label cannot address every question that the visitors are asking.  Labels need to respond to the fact that visitors are different. As we started this post, they are standing there with their phone in hand, and yet choosing to read what you offer. Are you responding to their generosity in-kind? Are you trying to give them what they need or what you need?

The label now needs to evolve. We need to better understand why people are choosing to walk over to that label. A 2015 New York Times article hailed the growing importance of labels (and digital text) and pointed to the many schools of thought on labels.   Yet, the article didn’t point out something important–we really need to align our labels with the changes in how visitors use text.  We need to do the work to research this essential problem. Earlier studies suggest that people use labels, but these studies need to be updated.  We need to see what the culture of skimming means for labels. Maybe we need more text? Maybe we need bullets?  Maybe we need links to broad sources online? I have no idea because I am not the average museum visitor. That is why we as a field cannot answer this without visitors evaluation.

When labels don’t keep in touch with the real world, visitors will notice the lapse. For example, the fates deemed that the “Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. should run currently with Bill Cosby’s alleged sexual misconduct trials. Visitors enjoying the artwork also had to confront a quote by the man who was being discussed on every news channel as a rapist. Given the length of planning, those labels were edited and printed long before the news broke. The poor installer who was carefully making sure the label was square could not have known of the prosecutors’ careful work on the Cosby indictments. But, either way, once the news broke, they put a disclaimer on the website but retained the print label. In other words, they wanted to maintain the “curatorial sanctity” of the gallery and displaced the real issues to the virtual sphere.  Projecting authority and neutrality is problematic for the museum and visitors. For the museum, neutrality obfuscates continuing scholarship. For the visitors, this causes confusion and/or results in eventual distrust of the museum.

Visitors are now very used to technology as their consumption method for ideas.  So first and foremost, it frees the label from being the only form of communication. Many museums have jumped on this pleasure, diverting content to other digital tools. However, now, our audiences have become discerning.  This means that we need to do much better with text:

  • We need to develop purpose-built text for digital tools. They are not labels. They are not being used by the people who use a label. They are for the power-users.
  • We need to understand that numbers aren’t the key to making decisions about content. Even if the pick up for digital might be a subset of the general audience, they consume at a high level. They also allow museums to share their greatest asset, their knowledge to a great degree.
  • Put time and money into digital writing. It matters a lot to the consumers. These consumers know bad digital writing.
  • Learn what good digital writing means. This is essential. Digital text is not just a digital label. Work with the whole team to understand good digital writing. Museum staff often consume very different types of writing than their audiences.

This is the second in a series of posts about considering Interpretation and Content to Meet Today’s Visitor’s Needs.

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Are Museums Writing for Today’s Audience? Looking at the Changes in Literacy & Knowledge-Creation in Society


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