What’s in a [museum] label?

We’re told in life that labels don’t matter. We shouldn’t put labels on all sorts of things be they other people, relationships, even ourselves. These everyday labels are all metaphorical and are mostly rubbish. The only ones that really matter are the ones on your groceries if you happen to share a house. Especially the one on the cheese.

In Museum Land however, labels are very important indeed. They are the main way that museum-folk communicate with people about the things they are seeing. These labels have a lot of power. They are authoritative, they are meaningful, and sometimes they really make you think.

There’s a real skill in writing these and it’s oh so easy to go wrong, and my friends over at TextWorkshop keep a record of some really unfortunate labels. You museum-y readers might remember them from a recent Museums Showoff

But back to the point. These labels all have a certain je ne sais quoi, a kind of power that the written word doesn’t always have. What gives these (sometimes) short string of words this unusual property?

The objects they describe, naturally.

Orphaned museum labels
Orphaned museum labels

Sometimes, labels become orphaned. They go from being important transferers of knowledge to just scraps of paper. Sad and forlorn, they just sit around, browning, foxing and becoming increasingly mysterious. There’s something about them that makes me want to make replacement objects for them, so they have a purpose again.

Hang on a minute. Are they really just scraps of paper? Let’s scrap that. They might not have an artefact’s story to tell anymore, but they are still telling us something.

Instead of telling us what the museum has, they start to tell the story of what they had. 

“But,” you might ask, “what happened to the object? To the thing they were talking about?” Well, several things could have happened to it. The Grant Museum of Zoology wrote about the causes of orphan labels and it’s a really interesting read (I also like that it’s named after one of my favourite Museum and the Movie films).

Whilst we’re on the subject of museum labels, here’s a treat from the tour of the Horniman’s stores.

2 or 3 toed sloth museum label
2 or 3 toed sloth museum label

However, I still want to make replacement objects for those orphaned labels…

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