Reading Between the Lines: the Complicated “How To” of Object Labels and Curating

This week, we read about exhibiting things from creating storylines and messages to the writing of labels.  I found myself most intrigued by the Ken Yellis article, maybe because it was the most seductive of the pieces, but mostly because it seemed very accurate about the power museums hold in creating transformative experiences.  Yellis’s example of a controversial story through objects is that of the Maryland Historical Society’s exhibit featuring juxtaposed items of a KKK hood in a baby carriage below a photo of an African American woman caring for a White baby.  (I will quickly note here that the Maryland Historical Society created what Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett refers to as a  “cultural fragment in context.”) Arguably, this exhibit tells a subversive story quickly and effectively—if the visitor sees all of these items in the grouping—and thus conveys the ironic atmosphere of  a specific space, place, and time that might not be as effectively told on paper.

Visual spatial clues in exhibits have potential to build that transformative experience, but Yellis also warns that the effect of exhibit choices is not always accepted or beneficial.  Perhaps what is most important in the Yellis message is that we must be prudent in our choices as curators, making storylines exciting and crucial with a careful process imparted to visitors in some way.  I realize here just how cohesive our class must be in the decision-making process of the Drexel Historic Costume exhibit, that our labels’ tone, voice and message will be strongly influenced by our exhibit’s storyline and goal atmosphere, including its order and use of space.

Beverly Serrell focuses on the flow of the exhibit based on the combination of utilizing space, sharing information and offering interpretations on exhibit labels while Alice Parman imparts the importance of creating take home messages through intentional and organized storytelling. Parman explains that we visit museums to fall in love and because just as curious about information in this case as if we were in love with a person.  She states on page 2, “We are hungry for information. We effortlessly absorb and remember every fact, no matter how detailed.”  What seems complicated here is considering Yellis and his urging to tell subversive stories—can we tell controversial stories of the past and still make people to fall in love?  In addition, Kirshenblatt-Gimbett emphasizes the non-neutrality of exhibits, and we are are reminded to be conscious of bias and the arguments we construct in the curating process.  Will bias change the love story?

Serrell dissects choice-making in label writing.  She encourages us to write succinctly the most important story with information that tells us something new or in a new way.  I liked Serrell’s suggestion to offer something special for the reader who “makes it to the end,” because I have had that “Aha!  I’m glad I read the whole label,” moment myself.  Because of my journalism background (Serrell cites newspaper writing as a flawed approach to label writing), I will be careful not to delve into that “something special” from the first line.

It was interesting to read the article on Exhibit Label Awards after reading the Serrell because some of the winners followed Serrell’s rules.  Elizabeth Labor’s “Potbelly Seahorse” from “The Secret Lives of Seahorses” in the Monte Ray Aquarium successfully uses alliteration and humor even in “Bigger is better for Potbelly Pouches,” because a) alliteration is not overused throughout the label and b)the humor is easily understood.  This caption could be considered successful because it reads easily to visitors.  How can we use Serrell’s guidelines to help us pave way for our own visitor-friendly object labels?

While reading the Kirshenblatt-Gimblett piece, I noted the strength that we are exploring our objects both individually, but also as a class.  By looking at these objects in a group, we prevent them from being singular, hopefully avoiding their being classified as artwork and instead, classifying them as active pieces of history.  Here again I think we are confronted with the complication of fashion, because historic costume is arguably art itself, too.  How do we encompass our objects’ significance in both art and the history in the storyline of our exhibit?  How will our exhibit labels aid in the storyline?



Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Objects of Ethnography,” in Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine, eds., Exhibiting  Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display (Washington: Smithsonian Press, 1991).

“Exhibition in Label Writing Competition 2010,” in MUSEUM. September-October 2010.

Alice Parman, “Exhibit Makeovers: Do-It-Yourself Exhibit Planning.”

Beverly Serrell, “What Are Interpretive Labels?”, “Types of Labels in Exhibitions”, and “Writing Visitor-Friendly Labels,” in Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach (London: Altamira Press, 1996).

Ken Yellis, “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars,” Curator: The Museum Journal 52. (October 2009): 333-348.

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