- some suggestions -

 

Alexandra Kim
ICOM Costume Committee board member

 

For most museum staff exhibition labels are an important way of providing visitors with information about specific objects.  All those who have visited museums however will have come across labels where the format is plain and formulaic, with text that ranges from a lengthy and indigestible essay to little more than the name of the object. Labels can offer a wealth of creative possibilities, helping to deliver narrative, connect with your audience and convey a mood or cultural aesthetic. They can do this while still providing information clearly and engagingly and without stealing the limelight from the object. With clothing in particular, labels that speak to the tactile nature of fabric, or draw on the biographical details of a wearer, can offer visitors an added dimension that helps to them understand and engage with the object. 

 

Label format

The shape and style of your labels can reflect the set design of your exhibition and help to give your visitors visual information about the exhibition themes. Of course you’ll want the text on your labels to follow guidelines for legibility (see resources below) and you’ll want to think about alternative formats for those that might need the information provided in different ways – do you need the text in different languages or braille and large print versions for example? 

Change the shape of the label to reflect and reinforce the exhibition theme. Whether they’re luggage tags for an exhibition about travel, clapperboards for an exhibition about film costume  or invitations for an exhibition about party dresses.

Use materials which have a connection to the objects, or which help to provide context. Printing on a fabric which echoes the fabric of the clothing on display or using a paperstock which reflects the packaging associated with the garments could convey a message about the production of the garments or their retail. 

Provide the information in a way that’s easy for the visitor to take in, like newspaper headlines – it’s much more difficult to assimilate written information when you’re standing up!

Consider using electronic labels. They might take the form of electronic picture frames, with changing text/images. Or they could be a device that people take around with them. You’ll want to make sure that the electronic labels are not too small and that they screens don’t change too quickly, otherwise people won’t be able to read the information.  

 

Label Content

The information you provide on a label is key for the way in which you want your visitor to think about the objects on display. Thinking creatively about the content of your label text opens up possibilities for experimenting with different voices. 

Use quotations from diaries, letters or contemporary sources instead of standard, museum-style information to offer a contemporary insight or personal point of view. 

Work images into labels to add another layer of interpretation to the garments and provide visitors with a visual form of information to complement the text. An illustration, for example, could show what a garment looked like when worn, the shape of its pattern pieces or different fabric samples.

How about incorporating different opinions into labels?  The Harris Art Gallery in Preston got experts to come and give their opinion about items in the collection and then incorporated this information very clearly into the label, giving visitors a sense of accessible but expert information. 

Ask your visitors to add their opinions. Clothing often provokes a personal response from people and people naturally comment on clothing. Adding visitor opinions to labels for clothing on display can not only help to add a sense of fun and creativity but give offer a sense of the diversity of people’s opinions about clothing.

 

Helpful sources of information for label writing

Museum Practice (published by UK Museums Association) Issue 39 Autumn 2007 was a special Working Knowledge on text and labels

The October 2011 edition of Museum Practice was also devoted to the art of writing museum labels

Gallery Text at the V&A Museum; A Ten Point Guide by Lucy Trench, interpretation editor, learning and interpretation , 2009

Writing Text and Labels, an on-line guide produced by the Australian Museum with an extensive bibliography

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