Museum Label 2.0

For some time now I’ve been thinking about visitor interaction with museum objects, and the possibilities this offers for sparking reflection and conversation around a certain object and space (though any span of time).

This interest was fuelled by a (faltering) project to use QR codes within a local museum, and by my experience with museum objects as clues within Alternative Reality Games; this was juxtaposed against the plain, traditional object labels I was seeing in museums up and down the country during conference season.

The final spark was a conversation on Twitter with a couple of museum-friends from the British Museum about museum audiences and dumbing down/maintaining academic standards.

So, on the eve of Museums and the Web 2009, I present my first thoughts on an object label for the Web 2 generation. Notes follow the diagram. (0) is obviously the name of the object.

Museum Label 2.0

  1. Key facts (location, age, cultural link etc.) – standard on contemporary labels in most, but not all, cases
  2. Clear image of the item: helps to give visitors a sense of the whole item when the object itself is very small or very large. Also good for take-away options (see below)
  3. This section of the key facts is numerical, and standard across all objects. It serves a dual purpose as a top trumps-style game for children (see below)
  4. Timeline. This shows roughly where the object sits in relation to key events, to give a broad frame of reference.
  5. Quick information in large type: designed for young visitors, those with poor sight, those in a hurry, those with only passing interest, etc. Pictures accompany where useful.
  6. More information: expands on the Quick information, for those who want a little more detail.
  7. Further information: the full catalogue entry (or a reduced section of it) for those wanting a detailed description or who have an academic interest.
  8. More Info: the QR code and short web address both provide access to the main catalogue page on the museum’s web site. This could be augmented with audio visual or discussion options (see 9).
  9. Discuss: this is for visitors to provide their own comments or opinions on the object. They have the option to send an SMS message, send a message or start a realtime discussion via Twitter, or mention it on blogs, Facebook or other web2 platforms which support tags (the #bm_snake text). These comments/messages would be aggregated in real time to the info page (8) to allow other visitors past, present and future to read and comment on them.
  10. Braille title for the object, at low level and always in the bottom right corner.

This hypothetical label is clearly a little over the top, and packs a lot of ideas in. However, it’s not particlarly unclear, and with work and testing could form the basis of a very workable method of labelling objects for a wide audience, and encouraging engagement in contemporary ways (but largely new to museums).

As an additional option, copies of the labels could be provided as cards for visitors to take away – allowing them to look in detail, access the Info/Discuss options when they have a web connection at home, school or work, and use them in a trading/swapping game (see 3). Copies might be in stock next to popular/major items, but available to print on demand within the museum’s shop or at the exit to galleries (a small charge for the cards/printing would help offset the relabelling costs too).

Thanks for the above ideas go to:

  • The Cambridge Museums group, for inspiration on the top trumps-style game coming from their excellent collectable cards series.
  • Terhi Nurmikko, British Museum, for the idea of physical cards, and for feedback on the prototype.
  • The British Museum, for the excellent information available on the Turquoise serpent used in the example (note that some incorrect information has been added to the core record: see here for the full version).

4 responses to “Museum Label 2.0

  1. I think these are great!

    Looking at it though, one suggestion I’d make is to remove the cartoon girl form block 5.

    I know the aim is to have simple info to appeal to children, (hence the drawing no doubt) but I think you’re limiting your audience with this. What I would say is, yes, keep the text, I like way the context gets more complex, but I feel like the text in the first block is very accessible to all.

    What I mean by this is that it shouldn’t be limited to just children (which is what I feel the cartoon does). However, the level of complexity of the language certainly makes it suitable for other types of audiences as well – adults, who perhaps speak a language other than English as their first language, or adults who have low levels of reading, or just those who want the basic details quickly, as you’ve pointed out.

    I really think there is so much potential here – I can see this being trialled out, and I will chase some potential contacts with that in mind.

  2. Many thanks! I’m thinking of a small museum to trial these labels, so if you have any contacts that would be great.

    I take your point about the ‘child’ cartoon. If the truth be known, that was my pathetic attempt at a real life drawing 😉 but I think you’re right – older groups would be put off by the illustration, and in fact it would take more effort to produce as all of the other material would already be likely to be on the museum’s database.

    The lower level of English / non-first language groups are a good point: section 5 ought to be designed with those groups in mind too.

    Thanks! Next stage: a test site.

  3. I agree about the image. Other users might simply skip over it as it’s clearly for children.

    I love the timeline idea. I often have issues with museums putting objects into context. National Museums of Scotland do really well with adding a timeline in each case with highlights what dates the objects in the case relate to. A very visual guide for people who might struggle to comprehend how long ago it is. I find this particularly true with Ancient Egypt, as people seem to forget that Ancient Egypt was generally (and I won’t get into the arguement of how long was Ancient Egypt here) about 3000 years long. It was not one culture, it changed etc, and a timeline would clearly show the length of time between the Old Kingdom and Ptolemaic period.

    I do believe we need LEVELS of information, from labels for people who just want the quick facts, to more detailed panels, to information folders. The QR codes idea is interesting as I can see that working with many visitors having smart phones. People can choose to get the information that they want, and in this age of when people are used to personalisation, that should include what they want to know from the museum.

    Although I like the idea of cards to take away, I can see that smaller museums may have issue with the cost of doing so. And charging may be something that would not be possible, or welcomed. But mahybe using the QR codes to download a link or information to a persons email address so they can access it later may be an option.

    On the whole, I am interested in the idea of these types of labels as it is a great way to increase access and emjoyment of our collections. I am going to be creating an exhibition (admittedly in 2011!), and it could be something we’d be willing to trial then. No promises though…

  4. Great inspiration. I persist on introducing new ideas (like QR codes) without recognizing the need to use multiple channels. Also enjoy the idea of physical cards that could be taken away. Could be a good idea (if smaller museums wanted to save on costs) to post the cards online so that discussion could take place before seeing the item on the gallery. Perhaps a URL at the bottom of the card might be appropriate.

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