a It’s Saturday night, and most people are out having fun. Graduate students, like this one, didn’t always have that luxury. Many times they spent nights at home or the library alone, reading. Often, their lives were dominated by reading or discussing books.
Given my above attempt at label writing, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the reading for this week was Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach by Beverly Serrell. The work is a highly useful manual and how-to guide not only for writing the actual content of labels, but for a variety of topics in exhibit development and design ranging from creating a big idea to font choices to incorporating digital devices to evaluating exhibits through visitor feedback. Moreover, it is not made up only of Serrell’s ideas on all these things; rather, she incorporates the ideas of many others who have extensive experience (for example Judy Rand is mentioned repeatedly), and she includes many real-world examples as well as related studies. This makes it very valuable as a resource and guide for anyone working in or with museums.
One of the critical themes she discusses is the use of a ‘big idea’ to guide exhibits. This is handy tool in every stage of exhibit development. It is essentially a concise sentence with a subject, verb, and so what which is used to ensure everything in an exhibit is tied to one primary theme, giving it a unified message that is straightforward and relevant and enables a visitor to leave the exhibit with a clear idea of what it was about. It also encourages the visitor to engage with the exhibit in many more ways than if it was a jumbled mess of many unconnected ideas. Serrell decided the concept was important enough to start the book with, and refers back to it many times in the rest of the book, and I think she was right to. To me, the ‘big idea’ seems extremely helpful in designing and defending exhibit designs, so long as the exhibit team can agree on it and has the discipline to stick to it (not meaning it can’t change but that everything must tie back to it).
One of the other things I like about this book is its format. Throughout, there are concisely presented bullet lists which could be used like checklists for drafting and revising labels. In the text around these lists Serrell elaborates on them and provides the why (which is always important for me at least, not just for understanding but also for motivation). On top of that, she includes many examples of what right looks like from actual exhibits that were done well (and sometimes she shows them as they evolved or compares them to bad exhibits). All these things make it a great tool for label writers and exhibit designers to keep nearby and reference as they go about their work.
All this raises the question: if such a useful resource for label writing exists, backed up as it is by studies and other experts, why are there still so many poorly written labels around? I guess there’s no way to avoid it: simply, it’s really hard to write concise, easily-understood short stories that reference displayed objects, engage readers, while still discussing often complex ideas and interpretations tied to a larger theme. Even with Serrell to guide me, I had trouble only attempting half of that in the simple label I began this with, and it still could be improved.
Add to such a difficult task limited time, funds, and training, as well as the demands of boards of directors etc., and I begin to appreciate even the mediocre labels that are out there. I may have started with the plight of the grad student, but I will end with the plight of the label writer. At least (for the most part) they get paid.