Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Object labels and accessibility

Conducting focus groups among art gallery visitors last Saturday I had a strong sense of deja vue as several participants got hot under the collar about their frustration and anger about the dysfunctional object labels in a special exhibition.

The exhibition presented three-dimensional objects and used standard art gallery object labels. You know the kind – small print and low-set. To add insult to injury, the labels used a reflective material. 

In traditional galleries, like the Art Gallery of NSW in the next photo, visitors are more accepting of low-set object labels in small print. This picture shows that the labels are set well below eye-level and even average-height visitors will have to bend to read each and every one.

Traditional art gallery labels

This style of object label becomes problematic for free-standing glass cases when labels are put even lower down on the plinth. In many cases visitors have to kneel to read them. Not so easy for older visitors! No wonder many give up in frustration.

In special exhibitions, visitors have come to expect more. Art museum visitors are often well-travelled and many have seen best-practice interpretation in other places.

The National Museum is doing a good job of making object labels more accessible. In several permanent and temporary exhibitions they have adopted an approach that uses a sloping ledge to hold text, images, video screens, or interactive elements. 

Here's an example from the First Australians gallery. The ledge has the advantage of being very close to the visitor while leaving a clear view of the objects on display.

Interpretive ledge in First Australians gallery at NMA

The following picture shows a group of visitors at the display. It is clear that the visitors are looking at the art works and talking with each other. The great fear of art exhibition curators is that more prominent labels will 'take over' from the art works themselves. This example seems to demonstrate that more accessible information does not substitute for examining the works themselves. 

Visitors in First Australians gallery at NMA
While this 'interpretive ledge' solution won't apply to all situations, it should spark some creative thinking among curators who want to support excellent visitor experiences.

At the very least, object labels that can't be read by older visitors are an accessibility issue.

Posted by Gillian Savage


  1. Nice post Gillian. Wondering what folks think in general about museums replacing object labels totally with other ways to deliver content?

    For example, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust ( and MONA in Tasmania ( use iPhone/iTouch supplied to visitors to deliver content.

  2. Lynda, whenever I bring this up in focus groups there is strong interest among people who use smart phones -- usually younger age groups. Only a small proportion seem to know and use QR codes to access aps or content, but those who know it, LOVE it. People with smart phones are using them instead of cameras and audio players and they love the new and surprising things they can do with their phone. So they are already there.

    Lots of people who don't have a smart phone lust for one, but most people resist the complexity of learning another device. These folks are going to rely on object labels for a while yet.

    MONA is one man's playground and it is entirely centred around his vision. It's not even remotely visitor-focused. So they can do leading-edge stuff that disenfranchises most visitors without compromising their 'mission'.

  3. Thank you for your post Gillian. I am often critical of labels in Art Galleries. They often don't follow what I would consider basic design and legibility guidelines (as someone who produces exhibition labels in a museum), quite apart from their content.

    The Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs exhibition here at Melbourne Museum uses a very simple solution to being able to see the label on a showcase - it repeats each label in several positions -for example, one up high above the object and another below. Both are in a reasonably large font size. This works well for a blockbuster, where other people may be obstructing your view of the label. How easy is that!