[Y]ou miss the music if you point out to a poet that his love isn't really a red red rose.
-- Robert Kaplan, The Nothing That Is
More label examples:
|A compelling exhibit at the National D-Day Museum. Text is much too long, but the visuals are compelling...|
|...and even-handed. The racial prejudice on both sides of the Pacific theater was artfully handled.|
|This graphic at the D-Day Museum is one of the more compelling I've ever seen; please forgive the lousy picture. You have a map of Japan, indicating various major cities. Each line gives the name of the city, it's population, the percentage destroyed by Allied fire-bombing . . . and an equivalent U.S. city. Puts the war in a very different perspective to think not of 65% of Kyoto going up in flames, but 65% of Chicago.|
|More poetry, this one from an exhibit on time at the Louisiana Chidlren's Museum.|
|Zoo labels often fall into a dreary repetetivness: either it diet and gestation period, or it's habitat loss and endangered species. The Audubon Zoo in New Orleans tries to liven up the mix with these cultural labels, explaining some of the myths and legends associated with various animals in their native lands.|
|These folks mean business! (From the Audubon Zoo's Jaguar Jungle. I can just imagine what a fit this would provoke at some overly serious and self-important museum of natural history. Not mentioning any names, of course...)|
|We haven't talked much about exhibit cases on these pages. Perhaps because they are the most common means of communication in the museum setting, few of them seem really spectacular. But here's a good one, from What is an Animal? at The Field Museum in Chicago. A clean, clear layout with short, crisp labels. Say what needs to be said, and move one. (I don't care much for the headlines -- a single strip of white on the solid background. Makes the case look more cluttered than it is. A little better graphic design would have helped.)|
|Here's another shot of What is an Animal?, this time showing off the label hierarchy. Different types of labels perform different functions. The room is titles, sections of the room are titled, each case orcomponent within the room is titled, each label within the case or component is titled -- a very clear outline of the information.|
|This may well be the single most important museum label in all of America. In downtown Dallas, just across from the Kennedy Memorial, sits a small, storefront museum: The Conspiracy Museum. It is dedicated to the proposition that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone. Their exhibits make the case for some two or three dozen shots flying across Dealey Plaza from at least half a dozen guns. All palpable nonsense. But what makes this so amazing is that they tell us all this, right up front. No pussyfooting around: This Is What We Believe. And the rest of the museum present the "evidence," as they see it.
Oh, if only all museums were so forthright and honest! The mere fact that an object appears in an art museum gives it the status of a "good" and/or "important" work. Yet it is only one curator's opinion. But we enjoy being the guardians of culture, so we allow our opinions to stand as anonymous common wisdom.
So too with history museums. The name on the door implies that this is the one, true, canonical history of the city/county/state, when really, all it is, is stuff that wealthy people donated for the specific purpose of being seen as central to the regions history.
Even science museums present their exhibits as Unassailable Truth -- conveniently forgetting the very important caveat: "unassailable...within the realm of science!
Don't get mewrong: I think science is pretty well-nigh unassailable. I think most history museums are working very hard to be more inclusive and to admit the limits of knowledge and the subjectivity of story. Even art museums ocassionaly emphasize that a particular exhibit illustrates the thesis of a given curator. But how much better would all our museums be if we, like the Conspiracy Museum, put our money where our mouth was and told every single visitor, right up front: this is what we believe?
|Another way in which The Conspiracy Museum outshines the rest of us: they are willing to air their dirty laundry and admit a mistake. Their permanent exhibit tries to identify every person in every photo of the Kennedy assassination. One person was misidentified as a sherrif's deputy, until his son saw the exhibit and sent in a letter saying nope, Dad worked at a local restaurant and was just in the neighborhood to see the President.
How many of our museums would be willing to admit that a mere visitor may actually have information we don't? Or, of we are willing to admit it, how many would give the visitor credit in a public display? Wouldn't we rather just change the permanent exhibit and quietly pretend it was right all along?
|And another poem, also from The Conspiracy Museum.|
I just can't stop writing about labels! Here are some more pages with examples:
Labels, page 1
Labels, page 2
Labels, page 3
(This page updated on March 3, 2003)
All photos copyright © 1990-2003 by Eugene Dillenburg. These photos may be used free of charge for non-profit or educational purposes only. If anyone figures out a way to make money off my lousy photographs without my permission, you'll be hearing from a lawyer. So there.