Labels are one of the most important aspects of the museum experience in my opinion. The label is the guide to helping the visitor understand what exactly they are looking at, and without them its just another old thing behind glass. The language used, the placement, and the layout/design can make or break the labels within the exhibit.
Do’s and Don’t’s of the label world:
- Don’t use jargon
- Don’t use passive voice
- Don’t make it too long
- Don’t write to impress instead of express
- Do use a lot of action words
- Do make sure that the words are visible and contrasting on the design
Judy Rand speaks about labels in a way that could allow anyone who has ever been to a museum before to understand the difference between good and bad labels. A visitor shouldn’t need a glossary to know what is being said. They also shouldn’t have to have a magnifying glass to read the texts. Many of the things that Rand describes can be seen in the labels that were in the “Drill, Baby, Drill” exhibit. No one wants to have to sit on the floor or stretch their necks up to the ceiling in order to be able to be informed on what’s in front of them.
Lucy Harland speaks of the “mutterers”. These are the people that walk away from a panel or label muttering to themselves. She explains that when this happens you know its time for a change in your exhibit.
Labels should act as a docent for when the docent isn’t available. They should have a conversational quality to them. This makes the label easier for people to read and to discuss later with others members of their groups (children, classmates, etc). This also means that the ones writing the labels shouldn’t write them for their peers but for the intended audience. No jargon. No one should need a glossary to understand the simple panel in front of an object. Short, sweet, and to the point is usually the best bet.