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April 11-14, 2007
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How Shall We Label Our Exhibit Today? Applying the Principles of On-Line Publishing to an On-Site Exhibition

Ross Parry, and Mayra Ortiz-Williams, University of Leicester; and Andrew Sawyer, Simulacra, United Kingdom

Abstract

This paper reports upon the findings of a seven-month project (funded by a HIRF Innovations Fellowship award) to build, demonstrate and evaluate a prototype of an editable, wireless, in-gallery digital label system that uses a Web-based authoring tool. The partnership between the University of Leicester and Simulacra worked with three UK museums to test the viability of building and sustaining such a system. The paper places the use of such dynamic 'labelling' in the longer historical context of museum interpretation and the relationship between museums' on-site and on-line channels. It considers the findings of both  visitor observation and the impact of different 'generators' (authors) and 'triggers' (events) of the labels' live content. However, what is brought into particular relief is the range of assumptions made by the curators involved – assumptions with particular implications for the way both Web-based and gallery-based content and interpretation were seen to be valued within the respective institutions.

Keywords: authoring, label, wireless, on-site, user-generated, gallery, exhibition

The Enduring Label

For some four hundred years museums have used textual labels in their displays, labels that are fixed both in terms of format and content. Textual commentary and interpretation on the material collections of a museum (the 'emblematic approach') is entrenched in curatorial practice and visitor expectation. In today’s museums we may build (or, at least, may aspire to build) multisensory experiences where digital media are intuitive and innate (Parry & Sawyer, 2005). One might think, therefore, that in these sorts of modern gallery environments it would be unsurprising (inevitable even) for there to be a downturn in the use of simple captioning and labeling of objects. After all, with a range of media to be played, emitted, projected and manipulated, why would a museum want to persevere with the orthodox practice of displaying a short piece of text next to an object? With so many other sensory channels to address, so many intelligences and learning styles to meet, so many affordable media tools available, and so many creative designs to explore, what place could there possibly be for the humble text label?

And yet, today, the text label lives. In fact, writing text labels is for most museums still the orthodoxy. Reflexively, curatorial practice still presupposes the existence of text labels in exhibitions. Text books and seminal studies remind students and curators alike of how "[w]ords make us think, and our thoughts conjure up pictures in our minds", and how, consequently, it is through the mental pictures like these (which we find in a museum's text) that we "discover the world around us" (Ekarv 1994). "The exhibit that tells its story successfully", McKay (1982) prescribes, "does so through the effective organization of label information and historic materials." Understanding the relationships of labels to one another, it is said, is one of the keys to good exhibit work. Consequently, when Hirschi and Screven (1996) think about the education benefits visitors receive from attending a museum, it is, for them, through the information contained specifically in the labels that "any true understanding of the exhibits" can be gained. The principle that every object in an exhibit should have some form of identification appears to be engrained in best practice and embedded in curatorial culture; "[i]f it is important enough to show the public," so the thinking goes, "it's important enough to have a label" (DeRoux 1998a).

Indeed, many museums remain uncomfortable at the idea of displaying objects without labels. It was this assumption, after all, that helped define the Henry Moore Institute’s exhibition in 2001-2002, ‘Unidentified Museum Objects: Curiosities from the British Museum’ (http://www.henry-moore-fdn.co.uk/). Curators James Putnam and Stephen Feeke filled the small space of ‘Gallery 4’ at the institute (in Leeds, UK) with a number of British Museum collection objects (‘UMOs’) that had evaded classification and whose function and provenance was shrouded by doubt. However, it was the capricious absence of text labels (and, consequently, the un-tethering of meaning and the removal of the voice of the authoritative museum) that served mischievously to unsettle and provoke the visitor. The curatorial joke, the intellectual exercise, could only work if text labels were understood – by museum and visitor alike – to be essential parts of what an exhibition should be. The ‘missing’ labels, therefore, brought not just the objects, but also the whole idea of an exhibition into question.

Even in the hypermedia moment, the emblematic coupling of text-and-image, text-and-object, has been resilient. At times, the frames of reference for building digital content in museums are defined by the established practice of ‘label writing’. In the case of Katz et al. (2006), aspects of the presentation of mobile multimedia are likened to "the titles of written labels", and the mobile text itself functions "like interpretive labels". Similarly, Speroni et al. (2006) have argued eloquently on how the semiotics of ‘labels’ remain (sometimes predictably so) part of a museum’s design of digital interactive applications. And, certainly, if we turn to an example such as the targeting and depth of information provided by the ‘Smart Web Exhibit’ (by the Carnegie Mellon University Libraries, the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History), we see at play perhaps an augmentation (rather than jettisoning) of the traditional label. For the curatorial approach here is still essentially emblematic (Bernadette & Thibadeau, 2000). Object labeling remains present in the habits of thumbnailing that characterize our presentation of on-line catalogues (Trant et al., 2000), the textual descriptions that structure our digital resources (Addis, Martinez and Lewis, 2005), the metadata that encodes our on-line image databases (Bennet & Jones, 2001), and the alternative text that tags our accessible ‘captioned images’ (Bowen et al, 2001). Even the current phenomenon of social tagging in the context of museum collections is described by its leading exponents (Wyman et al., 2006) as a form of ‘labelling’. Evidently, formats may change, interfaces may vary, content may be more dynamic, but in each of these cases the culture of the museum ‘label’ is sustained.

Origins

There are (at least) two cultural streams that flow into the emergence of the museum label in the European tradition: the culture of the emblem, and the culture of classifying. One tradition is from the world of pageantry, poetics and display; the other from the world of natural philosophy and cataloguing.

In terms of the former, it is with reference to Valeriano’s Hieroglyphica that D. J. Gordon (see Orgel, 1980) helps us to understand a European Renaissance moment where text and image became conjoined within (and to) museum culture. Through emblems and impresa, in the sixteenth century a "combination of picture and motto or legend" (Orgel 1980: 16) was fuelled by a great vogue for hieroglyphs. Although the meaning of these emblems was at times deliberately "elitist, abstruse, exclusive" (Orgel 1980: 18), the goal was both to convey and embody a "hidden wisdom". For the Elizabethans, Gordon explains, there was "an area of ambiguity, powerful in its application, about the relationship between name and thing, representation and object – even name and person" (Orgel 1980: 21). Therefore, the early museums’ and cabinets’ use of an emblematic presentation of images and objects (with interpretive and instructive text) would have been recognisable within (and consistent with) the rest of the cultural landscape of the late Renaissance and Baroque in Europe – a landscape where this marriage of image/object with text was understood to be an act of eloquence and wisdom. Crucially, the place we would recognise today as ‘museum’ comes into focus for the modern eye at just this time; consequently, it is unsurprising to find an emblematic tradition at the core of the museum’s modus operandi – both then and today.

However, flowing into this early modern impulse to caption image with text came another discourse – more systematic, but just as complex and just as laden in meaning. Just as the magic, resemblances, interpretations and dualities of the medieval and Renaissance worlds became outmoded (at least for those individuals influencing political and intellectual life) by the reason and systematic rigour of new scientific projects of measurement and order, so also the museum became a place of "overarching explanatory narratives" (Pearce, 1995: 371), where "the establishment of records, of filing systems for them, the drawing up of catalogues, indexes, and inventories, worked as a way of introducing an order between all things" (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992: 137). Crucially, it was from this moment (at the end of the seventeenth century) that museums such as the Aldrovandi in Bologna and the Plater museum in Basle were among the first institutions to incorporate text labels into their exhibitions (Murray, 1904). Here, their text labels became an embodiment of this "classified time" (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992: 137) and the instructive agenda that the Enlightenment museum held at its core. A museum had a collection, but giving order and meaning to this collection were its labels.

Practice

With this rich heritage behind it, and with exhibition texts understood (by some) to be a "central component of a museum’s communication agenda" (Ravelli, 2006: 3), practitioners today continue to reflect upon the form, function and content of labels. Analysis has varied from practical approaches on use of tone and style (Kentley & Negus 1989) to more empirical measuring and testing of text label legibility and readability. Equally, the conception of label text has varied from approaches that have advocated ‘concrete’ structures and condensed writing, to others that have emphasized the importance of rhythm in the construction of gallery text: "you can concentrate text", says Ekarv (1994), "to an almost poetic level." Guidelines on writing text labels have at times been prescriptive (McKay, 1982; DeRoux 1998a), stipulating typeface size and style, line length, leading, avoidance of overprinting, one idea or natural phrase per line, use of active verbs, avoidance of subordinate clauses, and so on (Gilmore & Sabine 1994); whereas at other times, less regulatory, critical linguistic analysis has been applied (Coxall, 1991).

Unsurprisingly, however, the text label has not remained insulated from modern museological criticism. Whereas a writer like Coxall might fear how a curator’s text on a label might unconsciously perpetuate a stereotype or myth through its choice of language, Gurian’s concern instead is rather for the myth of the text label itself (as medium) – and the assumptions it makes about visitor experience and learning. For Gurian (1991), the perpetuity of the text label in the modern museum is symptomatic of more lasting, and what she sees as more worrying, curatorial suppositions about the needs of a ‘civilised person’ within an exhibition.

And so it is that the modest text label (at least in its traditional, printed, static form, authored and given context by the museum) remains: both iconic of what a museum is, and a symbol of what a museum should strive not to be.

From ‘Label’ to ‘LIVE!Label’

Encouragingly, however, DeRoux (1998b) reminds us that "museum label-making techniques change and evolve with the times, and with new technology."

So, rather than sweeping labels aside (as Gurian and perhaps some of our new digital plans have envisaged), what if we acknowledged (and preserved) the embedded and informed practices of label writing and the intrinsic and historic part that labels play in the imagining and building of exhibitions – but, at the same time, also explored the implications of simply making the labels digital? Rather than using the full functionality of digital media (the reflex temptation whenever computers are introduced to the gallery floor), what if the label were not a touchscreen, and not the tip of a multimedia iceberg of archival material, but simply and cleanly just a label – but a label (crucially) that could be updated by the curator (or perhaps even the visitor) locally or remotely via the Web? What if the label the visitor looked at (at first glance, the same as any other) were in fact 'broadcasting' the very latest interpretations of its object? What if the labels in that exhibit could change (like some of our Web sites) at particular times of the day, or in response to certain planned or unplanned events? What if the labels in the exhibit could be changed, as easily as changing the stylesheet of a Web site, to tune its content to the needs of a particular visiting group, moment, or occasion? ('The exhibit this week is curated by ...'; 'Here are the labels your school class sent to us ...', 'Why not try our lunchtime trail ...') What happens, in short, when the new editorial practices of on-line publishing developed by museums over the last ten years are allowed to reflect back on to the on-site exhibit?

This has been the premise of the LIVE!Labels (L!Ls) project – a collaboration between the Digital Heritage Research Group within the University of Leicester’s Department of Museum Studies and Simulacra, a specialist producer of technology-enabled learning resources and tools for the museum and education sectors.

Objectives And Principles

The objective of the project was to design and then test a prototype of L!Ls. Research into existing practice and consultation with practitioners (including a day-long ‘concept workshop’ attended by a range of museum practitioners and representatives from the collaborating organizations) helped to determine a series of design principles. L!Ls needed to

With regard to the last of these points, other sectors – specifically retailing – have begun to use TFT-LCD solutions for small digital signage (http://www.profimax.it/; http://www.digitalview.com/), although plasma and projection are other common approaches (see http://www.commandaustralia.com), as are interactive touch screen window displays (see http://www.totalmediamarketing.net/). The collaborators believe that hardware costs will continue to fall, and that alternatives to TFT-LCD technology are emerging: ‘electronic paper’ or ‘e-paper’ (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electronic_paper) is one such example.

Front-end evaluation and market research also revealed the following:

  1. L!Ls needed, wherever possible, to build upon existing curatorial practice. The challenge for curators (especially in an accountable era where public funded museums, in the UK at least, are under great pressure with limited resources to demonstrate their ‘value’) is to continue to build exhibits that are relevant, fresh, inclusive and engaging. Introducing a tool or technology that disrupted or was incongruous to established practice was thought, therefore, to be undesirable – however innovative that technology might be.
  2. L!Ls needed to provide a solution that was powerful but ‘polite’. Historically, when digital media have been used within a gallery setting, the format has invariably been multimedia interactives: games, simulations, Web terminals and searchable databases, frequently contained in ‘kiosks’ and installations that are at best discrete from (and at worst incongruous to) their gallery settings. The museum sector is keen to utilize the power of digital media but in a fashion that is sympathetic to (and ambient with) the unique environment of the gallery setting, and in a way that does not distance and over-mediate the object on display or alienate less computer-literate segments of the visiting public.
  3. L!Ls needed to exploit the growing resource of the on-line museum, as well the convergence between the on-line and on-site channels. As more and more museums realign their missions and strategies to embed digital media activity and provision into their core functions, and as more museums become immersed in the promise of the digital age, there is as much talk of ‘broadcast’ as there is about ‘outreach’, of ‘channel’ as about ‘exhibition’, and of ‘user’ as about ‘visitor’. Curatorial resource is being invested into developing day-to-day new interpretive content for museum Web sites. L!Ls (in some respects an object’s own updateable Web page that sits next to it in the gallery) are one way this productivity can begin to have an effect not just on the on-line, but the on-site museum as well.

A matrix of different ‘triggers’ (events) and ‘generators’ (authors) was formed to capture and to begin to rationalize the myriad ways that L!Ls could be used. Content may be generated by curators, visitors (submitted on-site or on-line) or by an approved third party. The uploading of this content to the label would then be time-driven (triggered to the time of day/week); or visit-driven (triggered by the type of visitor); or event-driven (triggered in response to a planned event, programme or ‘guest curation’); or news-driven (responding to unplanned events or new research).

Across this grid of ‘triggers’ and ‘generators’ content was likely to be in four key forms:

  1. contextual – using the label’s editable quality to provide new or changing interpretations of the object (‘This week scientists discovered that objects like this are ’); or
  2. promotional – using the label’s editable quality to bring to the visitor’s attention other events or services provided by the museum (‘To find out more about this object why not go and see the next showing of ’); or
  3. directional – using the label’s editable quality to highlight connections to other objects and displays in the museum’s changing provision, or to build a thematic ‘trail’ (‘Another one of these objects is currently now on display in the ’); or
  4. responsive – using the label’s editable quality to allow a voice for visitors in the gallery (‘A 10-year-old visitor who saw this object yesterday said it reminded them of ’).

To provide the best possible initial glimpse of the potential and functionality of L!Ls, it was agreed that the testing and evaluation of the prototype would ideally be distributed across a combination of these generators, triggers and forms.

The Trial

Over a seven-month period during 2006, the collaborators worked to build, demonstrate and evaluate a prototype of an editable, wireless, in-gallery digital label system that used a Web-based authoring tool. To deliver this concept – of a gallery label which can be remotely updated – the collaborators built a number of slim LCD ‘labels’ (in two sizes: 6.4 inches diagonal; and 10.4 inches diagonal) with in-built wireless capability, that connected to a simple Web-based Content Administration System. This administration system enabled curators to author label text, select font and background colours or images, and set the times at which specific labels would be shown. Content was then sent via the Internet and a wireless connection to each of the L!Ls.

Fig. 1: LIVE!Label installed in German Expressionist Gallery, July-August 2006, New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester (photo: R. Parry).

Fig. 1: LIVE!Label installed in German Expressionist Gallery, July-August 2006, New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester (photo: R. Parry).

L!Ls were installed in three galleries, at two different institutions, in a period of testing than ran in total for nine weeks. The galleries were chosen to present a range of subject disciplines (art; natural history; and science/technology), but also a range of typical gallery environments (‘white cube’; cabinet and pedestal gallery; highly immersive discovery space). Significantly, the partner museums were also chosen for their differences in institutional organization and governance: New Walk Museum and Art Gallery (Leicester) is a local authority museum run and resourced via a city museums service; the National Space Centre (Leicester) is a not-for-profit charity; and the Natural History Museum, in London (that provided on-going consultation through the project) is a national museum funded directly from the central UK government.

In the German Expressionist exhibit at New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, the senior curator of art was able to use the labels as a way of capturing his latest thoughts and observations on the works on display. Under the title of Curator's Eye the LIVE!Labels sat alongside the permanent catalogue and labels, and over three weeks were approached, effectively, as an in-gallery blog for two of the paintings: "I looked at this picture again today, and it reminded me of something I saw last week when ..."  Updated labels were dated and the curator’s name was given.

In the Dinosaur Gallery at the same institution, another member of the curatorial staff invited younger visitors to 'Be a Dinosaur Curator for a day'. Over a three-week period visitors could write on a postcard what they wanted to see on the LIVE!Labels around the main dinosaur exhibit. The curator could then e-mail them to say that their label had been chosen to be on display in the gallery - they would be the 'curator for the day'. The Web-based L!L authoring system, linked to the wireless labels, made it relatively straightforward for the curator to embed visitor-generated content into the exhibit.

At the National Space Centre (NSC), Leicester, Head of Space Communication Kevin Yates used the LIVE!Labels to give visitors the very latest information (updated daily over a three-week period) on the number of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) in space – and how many of them (that day) were classified as 'hazardous'. This was data that the NSC was already recording each day, but was not making available to visitors in the NEO exhibit. During the trial, Kevin was even able to update the label in his exhibit from his home, via the Web, one Saturday morning.

Evaluation and Results

Before and after the trial, curators were interviewed on their expectations of and reflections on the L!Ls (both hardware and software). They were also observed while using the system, and were encouraged to use a ‘diary’ to record instances when the labels were changed, along with any other observations. Furthermore, across a 20-day period 763 visitors were observed (and interaction with the L!Ls coded) in the three gallery locations. From this observed group, 149 visitors were interviewed. (The visitor observation and interviews were circumscribed to a non-probability sampling and in consequence its results should not be considered representative of the potential population of the three museums that participated in this study. The feedback obtained from the visitors relied on the availability of the subjects.)

Half of the 763 visitors did not look at the labels. Only around 20% of the total number of visitors to the galleries actually read the labels. And of this group, only around 1 in 5 visitors saw them as in some way 'live'. Very few visitors noticed that the labels were dated. For about three-quarters of visitors who did read the labels, they made no change or made a positive change on their experience. Only one visitor out of the 149 who read the L!Ls thought they changed their experience in a negative way. And only two visitors out of this same group saw them as a 'distraction'.

Around a third of visitors touched the L!Ls. Visitors at the NSC, a vivid and, at times, loud ‘discovery’ space with a number of other digital and non-digital in-gallery interactives, were much more expectant of interactivity compared to visitors at the German Expressionist gallery at New Walk: at the NSC, visitors were seven times more likely to touch the screen. In contrast, visitors were more likely to describe the labels as 'digital' or 'different' in the German Expressionist gallery, than at the NSC.

Although there is abundant evidence (at this early stage) to suggest that the L!L prototypes are not distracting nor out of place in the gallery (rather, in the majority of cases a positive addition to the exhibition space) there is, nevertheless, an equal amount of evidence to suggest that visitors do not notice that the labels (at least as they were used in the trial) contain potentially 'live' information. And yet, around a quarter of visitors commented positively upon the informational role of the L!Ls. In fact, when asked, most visitors commented upon the content and clarity of the information rather than its 'liveness'.

Questions

Of course, another layer of interpretation and an important factor to keep in mind is the extent to which we are seeing, in this evaluation data, visitors' reactions to the physicality of the L!L, or the concept of the L!L, or the content that each curator chose to put on the label. As the L!L research continues over the coming year it is hoped to draw out these respective strands of analysis.

The second area that the collaborating organizations are hoping to explore further relates to the different responses of the curators involved. The curator interviews, and the observations of the curators using the system, revealed a reticence about updating new/live content to the galleries. Significantly, this reticence varied across the disciplines the curators were working within, the style of gallery, and the type of organization. Further research will attempt to determine which of these (or others) was the determining factor.

L!Ls appear to bring into focus a series of questions about narrative, text, and authorship in a gallery context. The consultation and front-end evaluation undertaken to develop the design specification of the prototype and the results of the live testing both strongly indicated the following:

  1. that curators are not explicitly claiming authorship and ownership of their textual content in exhibitions;
  2. that (perhaps in an attempt to speak to myriad learning styles, intelligences, experiences, knowledge levels and modes of visiting) there is a reticence over using a single, consistent curatorial voice; and
  3. that many museums have still to resolve how authorship, authority and narrativity function in a hypermedia context.

It is here perhaps that we should remember Walsh’s (1997) comments on the writing of text labels in exhibitions:

The typical interpretive art museum label, for example, is the work of a committee of educators, editors, scholars, and administrators who not infrequently disagree. Even the simple line "attributed to" can, in a museum label, conceal fierce behind-the-scenes debates over the nature of the art object it purports to describe.

Unlike the committee-work and conflict Walsh describes, it has been assumed (mistakenly perhaps) with this first iteration of L!Ls that curators can potentially change their in-gallery content with the same speed, frequency and confidence as they appear to have when updating their on-line Web content. Actually (from the perspective of this research at least), it appears that curators view their in-gallery and on-line content differently. One unintended outcome of this first phase of research and development into L!Ls (and something the collaborators are keen to pursue further) has been the revelation of this disparity between on-line provision that is thought to be active and responsive, and on-site (in-gallery) provision that is perceived to be largely and traditionally rigid, unmoved by events and visitors.

A decade ago, when many museums began their first attempts at building Web sites, the information architectures of these new on-line spaces invariably aped the physical and institutional architectures of the on-site space. And yet, in time, on-line museums increasingly found their own (distinctive) shape and voice, rescripting the notion of 'visit' (Parry & Arbach, 2005), recalibrating the criteria of what makes an 'authentic' object (Miller, 2002; Lynch, 2000), and extending the channels through which a museum can build a relationship with its widening audience (Rellie, 2004). Informed ever more, it seems, by the worlds of publishing and broadcast (Pratty, 2006), museums active in this area have assembled new workflows to ensure their sites are relevant, fresh and live.

The irony glimpsed within this first phase research and development of LIVE!Labels is that perhaps the time has come for the gallery to begin to learn from the Web, for the on-site finally to learn from the on-line.

Acknowledgements

The author of this paper (Ross Parry) would like to thank Mayra Ortiz-Williams (the research assistant) and Andrew Sawyer (Simulacra) for their contribution to the testing and development that underpins the work presented here. We are all grateful to the sponsors and collaborators on this project, in particular the HEROBC Innovation and Regional Fellowship scheme (HIRF), as well as Jeff Graham and Xor Systems (http://www.xor.co.uk/) and the technical team at Simulacra (http://www.simulacra.com).

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Cite as:

Parry, R., et al., How Shall We Label Our Exhibit Today? Applying the Principles of On-Line Publishing to an On-Site Exhibition, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2007: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2007 Consulted http://www.archimuse.com/mw2007/papers/parry/parry.html

Editorial Note