It’s a small thing in an exhibition, but for many visitors, it can be one of the best or most annoying parts of visiting a museum. I’m talking about the labels.
I’m sure we’ve all seen people floating through a museum, just meandering through a gallery gazing at what’s on display in a very non-specific way. That’s fine if you want an impressionistic visit, or you’re focused only on the purely visual aspects of the artifacts. That may well be the way you want to experience painting or sculpture in a fine arts museum. But most visitors, I think, want or need some context to see and understand decorative arts—and the main instrument for conveying context in an exhibition is the labels.
It’s hard to imagine, sometimes, how much work goes into a simple label. The need for a date can lead to hours or days (or a lifetime) of research to determine the most accurate date. We strive to make the text accessible and informative at the same time, not talking past people unfamiliar with the subject while offering new and/or useful information to people who already ‘know all about it.’
But one of the trickiest parts of labeling is the physical production and placement of them. A label on the wall next to a painting is relatively easy to see because you can step up close to the painting, read the label, and step back. With three dimensional objects, labels on the wall often end up being too far away to read at all unless they’re very large—and then they can distract from the artifacts themselves. So, we put them on the platforms and find that visitors don’t like having to bend over to read. (Neither do we.) We put them on a side wall and hear that it’s too difficult to figure out what’s what. (We agree.) So, we put them on stands and hope that they don’t interfere too much with your ability to see objects low in the case behind them. After all, you came to see the object, not the words.
As far as readability goes, during the time I’ve worked in museums, we’ve moved from traditional serif type faces (like an old fashioned typewriter font) to san-serif type. These are less fussy and more readable. But do you like the letters taller, rounder, thicker, thinner? There’s lots of choices. For basic labeling, we’ve settled on a font that’s got more character than Arial and is much less fussy than Times New Roman—two fonts that many of us are familiar with from creating documents in Word.
For our current temporary exhibition, High Style: Betsy Bloomingdale and the Haute Couture, we’ve gone back to having labels at about hip height. The contrast is high—black on white—with no fancy pictures or patterning obscuring the text. We’ve angled the boards so they should be easy to read. And, we’ve made the font size large enough to read without being overwhelming, we think.
I’m hoping to get another letter from an ophthalmologist like the one I received after Let’s Go Hawaiian. The doctor told me that our labels were just about perfect! I couldn’t have asked for more.
I hope you find High Style absolutely beautiful to look at and easy to read about.
Diane Fagan Affleck
Director of Interpretation