Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach by Beverly Serrell

I remember last year at work, we had a 10-week long docent training that served as a refresher course for the daily highlights tour. In addition to bringing in renowned scholars to give lectures on their relevant areas of expertise, staff also came and spoke about various skills of interpretation, like asking personal questions and making transitions. One day, a curator spoke about avoiding superfluous dialogue (e.g. “throughout time…” statements). He then led into an example of self-editing interpretation — except his example was a label text, not a spoken part of a tour. Naturally, the docents were furious by the apparent bait-and-switch. “How can you compare label texts and tour dialogue??” “It’s impossible to reach that level of precision while speaking naturally!” “YOU TRICKED US!” And so on.

That slightly-exaggerated episode was my first introduction, indirect as it was, to label writing, and it was all I could think about while reading Serrell’s endlessly useful manual on exhibit label writing. She does mention the interpretation involved in docent-led tours (which I’ll call just “tours” from here on), the type of interpretation I’m more used to, but more as an alternate source of guidance that helps to keep labels short (pg. 45). These two sources of interpretation – labels and tours – take extremely different approaches to enhancing visitors’ experiences in an exhibition yet come together to complement and enhance each other.

There are some similarities between tours and labels, beyond the basic organizational and writing tactics such as the “big idea” (pg. 7). The most pertinent similarity that stood out to me was the artifact-centered approach. Serrell repeats several times the importance of starting with what the visitor is currently experiencing, such as the object’s visuals (pg. 118). Then, after discussing the specific, the label can continue to the general. This reminds me a lot of a method of object analysis we use with students on tours called “I see, I think, I wonder,” where students name basic observations (“I see”) before moving onto more complex conclusions (“I think”) and larger/abstract questions (“I wonder”). Another similarity in approach to exhibit labels and tours was the type of questions to ask. Serrell advises that “the best questions are those that visitors themselves ask,” a guideline that helps to engage visitors and encourage participation while avoiding condescension or alienation (pg. 178). Phrasing questions in this way also helps to create a more natural, conversational exchange, either between the visitor and the label, or the visitor and the docent.

This sounds terrible to put down on (virtual) paper, but what struck me as the biggest difference between labels and tours is simply how carefully crafted they are! I could never hope to achieve such a level of eloquence while giving a tour, and I think this reaction (as well as the docents’ reaction above) cuts to the heart of how labels and tours diverge in style and intention.

Labels:

  • are short and to the point (pg. 36-39);
  • appeal to “the commonest common denominator” (pg. 87);
  • must be constructed with design in mind (pg. 3);
  • operate according to a consistency across all labels (pg. 31);
  • primarily interpret, rather than inform (pg. 2).

Docent-led tours:

  • are a set length of time, such as an hour long (and may go overtime!);
  • can be tailored to the specific audience;
  • must be constructed with the larger narrative in mind;
  • often differ according to the docent delivering the tour;
  • blend interpretation and information.

As we embark on this project to write exhibit labels for the Independence Seaport Museum, I’m admittedly nervous about fitting enough nuance, context, and visitor engagement into a constrained word limit. I’m so used to being able to clarify myself, rephrase questions, and gauge levels of interest based on my specific audience, that self-editing and having a more undefined audience will force me to exercise a completely different set of “history muscles.”

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Here’s a docent guide I worked on for the Becoming American tour. My label will probably resemble this amount of self-editing!

That said, I’m confident that Serrell’s work, with her commandments, suggestions, and examples, will prove to be an invaluable resource in this project.

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One thought on “Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach by Beverly Serrell

  1. Very nice comparison to the process of leading a tour. It is a very diffierent process adn product, but you are trying to reach the same audience, right? You’ll have an advantage here–whether it feel like it or not, having worked with so many people and to have really targeted in on young audiences.

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