Intro to Public History Week Four: Exhibits, Pt. 1

Intro to Public History
On the bookshelf:
  • Beverly Serrell, Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach (Second Edition)

This week’s reading was a highly readable approach to the process of exhibit label production- a topic that, while useful, is challenging to blog about. In Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach, experienced exhibit and evaluation consultant Beverly Serrell has provided a straightforward and thorough guide through this process, from early exhibit planning stages to post-opening evaluation practices. Along the way are plenty of solid examples of what works and what doesn’t in label design, accompanied by case studies written by industry professionals. Although there is a heavy emphasis on label design for science and nature museums, I am optimistic that her advice carries over into the history museum context as well.

constraints I knew xkcd would have a relevant take. I hope my exhibit label’s tight restrictions will inspire novel - and user-friendly - material.

It’s clear that exhibit labeling is more difficult than it might seem, and I am grateful to have a practical resource to consult as I begin to draft my exhibit label for the upcoming WWI Olympians exhibit at Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum. People who major in history, like I did, are not necessarily trained how to write concisely and leave out the nitty gritty details in favor of the “big idea.” As a result, I anticipate that will be one of the most challenging aspects of exhibit label design from my perspective. I have a hard enough time writing a simple tweet!

One of Serrell’s prominent arguments is that museums should be visitor-centered institutions; exhibitions and their labels should serve and engage the visitor. I haven’t actually visited any exhibitions cited in the book, so as I read through her advice and guidelines, I tried to relate them to my own experiences as a museum visitor. What made my favorite exhibitions stand out to me, both when I was a child and now as an adult? Out of all the things I remember about these exhibits- the layouts, the objects, the interactives, the atmosphere- the one thing missing is actual exhibit label copy. I can’t remember specifically what was said about any given object or concept, but I can remember how engaged I felt, how much I felt I had learned, and how well I was able to share the experience with the people I came with.


The 17th-century period room at theGeffrye Museum, London(author’s photo)

Luckily, I photograph many of the exhibitions I visit as a memory aid, and I was able to find an example of one that I really engaged with. The Geffrye Museum in London, which I was fortunate enough to visit this summer, has a temporary exhibition about domestic servants in England called Swept Under the Carpet? installed in its permanent gallery about the home. I was pleased to see that many of Serrell’s ideas were applied here. The interpretive panels, placed to the side of the period rooms, are well-organized, relate information to concrete visual references, and relate back to one “big idea.” The panels are unobtrusive to the visitors who only care about furnishings, but accessible to visitors who want a more nuanced story. Other panels between the rooms contain tactile interactive samples of upholstery fabric like horsehair as well as servants’ diary entries, all interpreted to bring attention to class division and the role of servitude in British society.

I look forward to applying Serrell’s guidelines in my own work, and I’ll be sure to post about the process as I tackle it!