The Bad Label Hall of Fame

Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh

On the wall they have mounted a small pterydactyl (a flying reptile from dinosaur times). The fossil is not articulated in 3-D; rather, it is smooshed flat and a bit hard to make out. The title is "Pterydactylus elegans" -- a scientific term not terribly helpful to the general visitor. The text of the label focuses on how the first pterodactyl ever discovered (is it this one? we don't know) was given a name which some scientists now dispute. Again, not a top-of-the-mind concern for visitors. The label could be improved by addressing questions the visitor might have: what are we looking at, what did this animal look like, how did it live. And in plain English, with less emphasis on Latin names and unfamiliar terminology.

Milwaukee Public Museum

A true story. I was exploring their geology / paleontology hall and passed their Dimetrodon (one of those four-legged sail-backed monsters that everyone thinks are dinosaurs, but are actually part of a totally different group, and in fact died out before the first dinosaurs appeared). I was lingering by a nearby display when two young men, probably early 20s, entered. In typical museum visitor fashion, they saw an object that caught their attention and moved in for a closer look. After a few seconds, they of course wanted to know what they were looking at. So they glanced around the case looking for the label. One of them found it, and read the headline out loud. "'A mammal-like reptile'," he said, then snorted, "That's helpful!" And they walked away, not learning anything about Dimetrodon.

Exactly how this, or any label, could be improved would depend heavily on the message of the component and the gallery. But an obvious approach would be to put the creature's name somewhere big and prominent. Also, even though "mammal-like reptile" cinsists of three fairly common words, their combination is likely to cause confusion. Perhaps something like "Looks like a dinosaur, but it's not," or "Fearsome Dimetrodon is related to our ancestors."

Lincoln Park Zoo

True story #2. I was in the new Small Animal and Reptile house, which is organized by biomes. In one habitat they have an echidna - a spiny anteater from Australia. This is a goofy-looking animal, comically waddling around. It's also a very interesting story - a mammal that lays eggs! And it's an example of convergent evolution -- totally unrelated to hedgehogs and anteaters, yet it evolved many of the same features. So there's lots of neat stuff to be said about this critter. Again, I was standing at a nearby display when two young boys, probably 6 to 8 years old, came running up, followed by their father. The boys peered over the rail and down into the pit to watch the echidna. "Oh, cool!" they sqeualed. "Dad, what is it?" Dad comes up behind and looks at the exhibit panel. It's all about the biome -- how some trees have adapted to living in a habitat with frequent fires. You could see the desperation on his face as he searched for some clue as to what his boys were looking at. After a long, uncomfortable pause, the glanced about, pointed to the other side of the house, and called out "Look, guy - monkeys!" The boys were off and running, and no one in the family ever had any idea what that odd-looking critter was.

One of the fundamental rules of label writing is: acknowledge the visitor experience. Connect your label to what the visitor is looking at. This label failed to do that, choosing instead to talk about the more abstract concept of biomes. Of course, you can link the two together: "The funny-lloking echidna makes its home in the dry forests of Australia," or whatever. This would require the zoo to re-write all the labels in the exhibit -- an efort that would probably be well worth it.

(I forget; I think it was at Santa Barbara MNH)

The writer / developer for a traveling exhibit on butterflies was a great proponent of inquiry-based learning. Each and every label had a question for a headline. The approach was a little redundant, but it was alright - as long as the questions were relevant. "What's the difference between butterflies and moths?" "Why are some butterfly wings iridescent?" These were all fine, since they were things the visitor might wonder when looking at that particular display. But they really scraped the bottom of the barrel with a label headlined by the question, "Is it true there are 47 genera of butterflies in the family Lepidoptera?" Or some such.

Questions in labels are acceptable, so long as they are the visitors' questions. The label writer must think: what would the isitor want to know? As opposed to: what do WE want THEM to know?

Minnesota Zoo

In the aquarium building, a wall panel is entitled "Elasmobranch Reproduction," and the text is divided into three small paragraphs, entitled "Ovipary," "Vivipary," and, "Ovovivipary." These are the Latin terms for the three ways sharks give birth; English speakers are left rubbing their eyes and wondering if those words could possibly be spelled correctly. The obvious solution is to rewrite the labels using plain English instead of scientific jargon.

(Along similar lines, a label at the Florida State Museum on fossil Pampatheres defines Cingulates as "xantherians with a shell." Again, these are not words most readers will understand.)

And here's one from The Pink Palace in Memphis. I love how they refer to this as "a simple formula." Of course, one is left uncertain as to whether T equals 50 + [(N-92)/4.7] or whether T equals (N-92)/(50+4.7). Well, printing on a textured background is a no-no, anyway.

The Field Museum of Natural History

In 1994, The Field Museum opened a new exhibit on the cultures of Africa. In it, there was a reading rail, showing various important events in the political history of Africa, interspersed with other events from around the world -- providing context, and showing that Africa has as long and as rich a history as other continents.

Unfortunately, one of those events, in 1950, was labelled "Korean-American War." There are several problems with this:

  1. This event already has a name. Using another name is going to confuse visitors.
  2. It is alright for museums to educate the public about a new name -- exhibits on the Inuit will explain that these people do not use the more common term "Eskimo;" exhibits on Apatosaurus will explain why Brontosaurus is no longer scientifically correct. However, no such explanation was offered here.
  3. Such education should occur in an exhibit on the subject. An exhibit on African culture is not the place to be educating people about Asian military and political history.
  4. The new name quite simply is wrong. It implies a war between Korean and the United States. In fact, the event was a civil war, in which the North invaded the South; the United Nations, with troops from 22 countries, fought back. The United States played a large role, to be sure, but by no stretch of the imagination was this a war between Korea (or even North Korea) and America.
  5. The new name was not based on new scholarship -- or any scholarship, really -- but pretty clearly was an attempt by the exhibit team to promote a particular view. (I worked at The Field Museum at the time. I knew the developers involved. I feel pretty confident that statement is accurate.) While no exhibit is ever completely objective -- and certainly, as a human being, no exhibit worker is ever completely objective -- stiil, an exhibit is not a place to advance your personal political manifesto. The institution is speaking, not you. And it is speaking in service to the public. How this re-christening served or educated anyone is unclear.

(On the same timeline, 1957 refered to the "Vietnam-American War." One could, I susppose, make an argument that point #4 above doesn't hold quite so strongly, but the others do.)

Luckily, I was on the staff of The Field Museum at the time, and responsible for fixing mistakes in exhibits. Normally that meant removing labels from the Indian halls that refered to "savages." But I was also able to fix this one, before too many visitors saw it. (The photo above shows the corrected label.) Got a bit of grief, too. The Department Chair was rather sarcastic about the whole thing, but went along as she had bigger fish to fry. The Graphic Designer complained that we were setting a bad precedent -- now, every label in the museum would be subject to change. Well, yeah. We are here to educate. Education requires accuracy. If a label is lying, we chnge it.

The Migration Museum, Adelaide, Australia

The Migration Museum told the story of migration to Australia. (I use the past tense, for I believe it is now closed.) I dropped by on a quiet weekday afternoon, and got a tour from one of the staff. She explained that the museum had a very strong leftist slant, and pretty much everyone on staff was a socialist. Well, that's OK -- it's not a case of an individual imposing their political philosophy on an exhibit that doesn't have one; rather, the institution has a philosophy, and the exhibits follow it. Perfectly fine.

She pointed out one particular label. It was a standard wall panel, but above it was a pull-down window shade. The label was on the Aboriginies, who had suffered greatly at the hands of the European immigrants. However, once the exhibit was up, some felt the label made the Aboriginies seem too much like victims. So a new label was written. But -- and here's where things start to get weird -- they didn't take down the old label. They "wanted to preserve the history of the interpretation." So, they screened a new label on the window shade and installed it above the old label. Visitors pull down the shade to read the new label. Which means, the exhibit is no longer about Aboriginies and history; it's now about how the museum has interpreted them over time. They completely undercut their message. It would have been better to just pick one message and go with it.

The Science Museum of Minnesota

Yet another instance where PC sensibility gets in the way of clear communication. Like many natural history museums, SMM has a cross section of a particularly old and large tree. (Minnesota being a lumber state and all.) And they use it to talk about tree rings. To get a sense of its age, to put it all in context, they put labels with the dates of famous historical events at the appropriate points on the tree.

Or, at least, they did. Then, in 1992, the Indian community advisory panel argued that the dates "told an exclusively Europen version of history." Why, yes, the Declaration of Independence, the Civil War, the Pilgrims and Columbus -- all "exclusively European." So the Museum removed them all.

Now, I will admit that some of the events dated -- the Battle of Agincourt, the death of Cromwell -- probably did little to create meaningful context for most visitors. And, since the tree lived and grew in America, then those dates which are European are a little out-of-place.

The problem, of course, is that there are few specifically-dated historical events in North America prior to 1492, and even if there are, they would mean little to most visitors. However, I see nothing wrong with dates from US history. ("Columbus discovered America" could easily be reworded as "Columbus arrives in America.") Or, if you like, mix in dates from cultures all over the world. Or, if you can't, then at least put numbers every 50 or 100 years. But removing all interpretation reduces a great teaching tool to a mere slab of wood, and makes the museum appear pedantic at best, cowardly at worst.

(And don't get me started on the fossil buffalo...)

(This page updated on October 7, 2005)

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