By Jack Ashby, on 6 August 2014
The answer to that question is no, we can’t label everything. We’ve just installed 600 new labels in the Museum, as a result of visitor feedback. But have we got the balance right?
There are about 6000 animal specimens on display in the Grant Museum (which, incidentally, is more than is on display at the Natural History Museum), including about 2300 in the Micrarium. The room is only about 250m², and this means our displays are very densely packed. We are hugely keen on specimens at the Grant – providing close access to real objects is one of our biggest selling points. For this reason (and also because we don’t have a lot of storage space), we put as much out on display as is logistically possible.
Drawbacks of dense displays
As much as people tell us they think of the Grant Museum as a room crammed with amazing rare things creating with an atmosphere that promotes exploration, filling every spare gap with objects does have its downsides. Some people think that displays should give each object its own space to breathe, allowing people to concentrate on them, but we’ve made the decision to go in a different direction. Plenty of other museums use this sparse display philosophy – but if you want to be immersed in a real and different celebration of objects, come to the Grant Museum.
The major drawback of jam-packed cabinets is that there isn’t a lot of room for labeling. We have finite space on a shelf, so we need to make a decision about how much of that space should be given to objects, and how much should be given to labels. We also have to decide that if we don’t label an object, would it be better not to display it at all, to avoid frustrating visitors?
The theory bit
To go a bit Museum Studies – the information museums provide about their collection is called “interpretation”, and can include written, audio, visual, haptic and even smell and taste, and can be delivered via any medium – written panels, models, real live people, digital interactives images, videos etc.
Typically, museums create an interpretation hierarchy – where any one object has interpretation nestled at various levels. The top level might be a large introductory panel about the whole case’s broad theme, for example “Reptiles”; a middle layer could be a shorter panel covering a sub-set of objects in the case, say, “Snakes”; and the lowest interpretation level might just be for one or two objects, like “King cobra”.
Most people don’t read labels
As much as part of my job is to develop all the Museum’s interpretation, I am fully accepting of the fact that most museum visitors don’t want to read much. I myself am a lazy museum visitor, and I die a little inside every time a see a 400 word essay pasted to a wall. If I, a professional museum label writer don’t want to read it, is it really that accessible to the average visitor?
Because of this, and the need to keep down space, our top level panels are only 50 words long, and the middle level long labels are only 23 words long. This is extremely short, and we spend a lot of effort in trying to anticipate exactly what the most critical piece of information visitors will want to know when they look at something. Most usually this is just “what is this?” If we fail to answer that first critical question, we are doing something wrong. Only once we have satisfied a visitors’ personal question can we move on to telling them something we want to say.
For example, we might have a really cool amazing story to tell about an object, like “This yapok once nuzzled Madonna in the video for Material Girl”, which is pretty pointless if we don’t first explain what a yapok is.
How many labels should we have?
We do have a couple of tactics for reducing the demand for labels – we also stick a little round sticker on each specimen with an icon for the group the animal belongs to, so if there is no other label people can at least intuit something about it (for example, all marsupials have a kangaroo icon on them).
When the Museum opened in 2011, there were about 550 interpretation labels in the displays. In the intervening years we learnt that this wasn’t enough – people left comments on (otherwise glowing) Tripadvisor reviews, in the visitors book, on QRator iPads and verbally to staff that they didn’t know what everything was. The benefit of being a small, personal museum is that we can respond relatively easily and make changes.
In response we more than double the amount of interpretation we provided, and added a further 600 labels this Summer. In the coming months we will be adding about 40 bespoke models of the whole animals to help people interpret some of out less well-known skeletons.
We are now at a point where adding more labels would result in removing specimens from display. Please tell us – have we got the balance right yet?
Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum.