We write a lot of labels in museums. Museum curators write them for exhibitions and displays. These labels help the visitors to discover more about the object on display. They can open an unknown world about that object: the history; the story; the relevance.
There are different ways of writing museum labels. Personally, I prefer to write them in a slightly conversational tone, being quite informal. Visitors will engage more with the object on display if the label next to it is exciting and fun. (I wrote a little about writing labels in museums here.)
Sometimes we need to describe our object a little more. It may be a fragment of a fossil, so we may want to say how big the animal would have been when it was alive. This is great as long as people can relate to it. Saying the animal would have been 10 metres long means very little to anyone. Saying the animal would have been as long as a double decker bus is so much more visual for anyone who reads it.
If I’m describing the size, or weight, of something, I want visitors to be able to visualise it.
I recently had to write a label for an object, and struggled with the weight comparison. This thing was pretty heavy, but behind glass the visitors wouldn’t really get a sense of just how heavy. It weighed 50kg. I wanted to get this weight on my label, but 50kg doesn’t mean a lot to most people: 50 bags of sugar is a bit better, but it’s still not quite right.
So, I asked Twitter. And of course, Twitter responded.
There were an enormous range of responses. Some of the more interesting ones were comparing 50kg to numbers of animals. One chap said ‘a 50kg butterfly’. Another said ’35 million ants’. Whilst this is probably true, I wanted something that the majority of visitors would immediately see. 35 million ants, or 25,000 krill is pretty tricky to visualise.
There were a surprisingly large amount of replies that said ‘me’. I quite like the personal touch to this – it’s always nice to get a little personal touch in a label. It makes the object and the information more relatable to visitors: something special behind the glass, and with a personal touch it makes it something relatable to you and I. Sadly, I doubt that many museum visitors know Robyn, Paolo, Nadine or Elina.
There were an awful lot of replies about dogs. And many of the replies included pictures of dogs. And even the dog owners and their dogs. Obviously cute (and somewhat terrifying given the size of some of them), dogs are a nice choice as people love dogs. But when we get into specific breeds, do the majority of people know what a Newfoundland dog is? Regrettably I didn’t chose a dog as my weight comparison. But I will give you a few of the
horrifying adorable abominations doggies.
It was inevitable that someone would do the classic shot of themselves lying next to a sturgeon. These are pretty big fish. Some species can grow longer than I am tall. This group of fish are pretty old too, with the earliest fossils being found around 240 million years ago. It’s a shame that these giants are not well know in the public eye. And more of a shame I couldn’t use this example with the photo:
A chimp is quite a good one. Male chimpanzee can weigh between 40kg and 60kg, and females can weigh between 27kg and 50kg. They are quite muscular animals. And instantly recognisable too. But, the variation is too much. Would the label say ‘an average sized male chimpanzee’ or ‘ a large female chimpanzee’? When we start to describe obscure specifics we are entering a realm of pure chaos for label writing: it gets messy, there’s waffle, and a new world of attempting to visualise something a little off the norm.
The same can be said of anything which is ‘half of’, or ‘an animal with something else’. Half a dolphin might just traumatise the kids reading the label. And, as fascinating as it truly is, I don’t think a Blue Whale testicle is a good comparison. (I think it is a fascinating comparison in it’s own right, but not for my label.)
The Giant Pacific Octopus is a neat example. It does weigh 50kg. Unfortunately many people won’t have seen one or know how big it is. These are pretty big beasts, which can be longer than a black cab. As nice as it is, I won’t use this example, because I would need an illustration to show the size of the Giant Pacific Octopus, and that makes the label get too complicated.
Of course, museum folk jumped in with their example. My favourite – 1000 herbarium sheets. It’s quite an interesting fact. Herbaria are collections of pressed plants. They are mounted on thin sheets of card, with all the information written onto the card. I actually didn’t know that 1000 sheets would weigh 50kg.
There’s an awful lot of choice. From pressed plants to the testicle of a Blue Whale, a lot of really interesting things weigh 50kg. Which one am I going to use for my label. I think I am going for something simple. Something everyone can visualise. Something cute.