One of the most fascinating discussions I ever had about museum labels was at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. A few years ago I was lucky enough to take a group of educators to DC for a week of learning in museums. We had the chance to meet with interpretative staff to learn about the design and execution of one of the museum’s permanent exhibitions, America by Air. The exhibit tells the story of commercial aviation in the United States, a pretty big topic the museum made digestible with innovative design and label writing.
I will be honest, Air and Space isn’t my favorite museum. I find it to be too much, too overwhelming, and too crowded. I also don’t like craning my neck to see the hanging objects. Commercial aviation doesn’t really excite me. But, once I learned about the subtle design elements in the America by Air exhibit I was engaged, for the first time ever, in this museum space.
The exhibit designers had included a mix of label types for the many types of visitors that frequent the National Air and Space Museum. Color coded labels provided interpretive information for grazers, enthusiasts, children, and families. Same content, different approaches. A visitor may not even notice these subtleties, but these design elements ensured the content was accessible for everyone.
I often tell this story when I talk to teachers about label writing in the classroom. I think it perfectly describes our job as educators. We need something for every type of learner in our classroom and our lessons have to whet the appetites of our students and engage them with unfamiliar content just enough to lead them to learn more and interact with new information.
I am proponent of teaching with and creating museum labels. Each year I eagerly away the Excellence in Exhibition Label Writing Competition. I am always in awe of the wordsmithing, the imagery, and the active language. It’s the type of writing we want our students to analyze and emulate.
Here are a few great resources for label writing in the classroom:
Label Standards from the Smithsonian
America by Air online exhibition here
Teachinghistory.org: My Piece of History