When is a Label Not a Label?


Everyone knows the venerable traditions of museum labelling,  

Museum information  


Undoubtedly these remarkably dry and factual information cards display a unique combination of field specific language and an arrogant requirement of assumed knowledge. There is a reason for this, and that is in the history of many museums as research institutions, their collections designed, and displayed for use as reference material for scholarship. Whilst we still play an important role in that process, it is far from our primary purpose. Defining exactly what our primary purpose is would take more words than are available here, but suffice to say that it is a long way from those stuffy and exclusionary Victorian institutions (don’t let the building fool you, we are very nice!).  

This all means that when writing the labels for the installation of our upcoming permanent exhibition, serious thought needs to be given to the purpose, format, and style of the words that accompany the objects on display.  
There is a whole field of scholarship dedicated to the science and art of ‘interpretation’ or the way in which we communicate ideas and stories to the public. Every exhibition draws from different parts of that scholarship. Downstairs much work was consulted on how  best to communicate scientific stories, and best practice regarding the integration of Māutaranga Māori and te reo, upstairs there are other challenges associated with telling stories that are still alive in the memories of the communities (although we still draw on some of our previous learning).  

There are a number of basic guidelines that we follow which are then informed by some of the more complex scholarship. These can be roughly boiled down to: 

We are for everybody, so we have to choose the words we use very carefully. We aim for a reading age of 14 so that both adults and children can enjoy and understand the labels. It also acts as a good barrier to prevent us from slipping into technical jargon, that whilst common in our field is not widely understood.  

Not everyone is an avid reader, and not everyone revels in boring technical details. All of our taoka carry stories with them, and their story is the reason that they are on display. Our aim is to provide a jumping off point, a moment of connection and inspiration between the viewer and the past.  

Really a subset of engagement but so important that it requires a section to itself. A museum visit should not be the equivalent to reading a book. Some say that a picture says a thousand words, but taoka can say even more. We attempt to limit our labels to approximately 75 words for an object label, although that is incredibly difficult. We leave a little more leeway for ourselves with ‘sectionals’ or the large labels at the start of a part of an exhibition, going up to around 150 words.   

The past is a fascinating place and we desperately want to share our enthusiasm for it with the visitor. We aim to make people think, to question, and to feel. Those are the emotions that inject humanity into the series of events that make up the past.  

These goals and purposes are always subject to discussion and modification depending on the context, but they make up the basic principles of label design. You can let us know whether we have successfully achieved our goals when you come to visit. 


Henry Buckenham