Writing the Museum Label on a Wiki (and some other ideas)…

For some time now, we have been publicly questioning the division that exists between two professional groups tasked with educating the public about art: those in museums (curators and educators) and those in the academy (art historians). These two communities share expertise that is sought by the museum visitor and the student, yet they rarely meet, too often do not attend the same conferences, and almost never collaborate.

Teachers in the art history classroom regularly rely on museum resources (the fabulous Vermeer videos for example, created by the National Gallery, or the Eastman House videos to name two of our favorites). Exhibition subsites are also often very useful—but they are expensive to produce. The learning materials developed by professors for their students often reside behind the locked gates of learning management systems, so they are not available to the wider public (open courseware is, of course, the lovely exception). Interestingly, it is usually only via iTunesU that we are able to aggregate content created by these two different communities.

Our overarching point is that these two communities really ought to collaborate because the benefits to those we serve could be enormous. And we have two notions about how we might do that:

Notion 1
Inspired by Koven Smith’s recent paper (given just a couple of weeks ago at Museums and the Web) on the Future of Mobile Interpretation we thought of one way to bring the museum and the academy together. Koven draws attention to the disjunction between the more open and personalized online museum experience—which often allows visitors to browse most (if not all) of the museum’s collection, and even create personal collections of their own—and the experience of the on-site mobile device which contains only limited “stops” and focuses on special exhibitions and highlights from the permanent collection. Koven’s answer to mobile interpretation: make the entire collection available on mobile devices—with the textual accompaniment one finds on the website. And we would add more to that—make it available with interpretation that is conversational, open, personal, opinionated—AND offers expertise.

In a recent blog post Nina Simon noted the disjunction between the on-site experiences and the web experiences even of the same museum, “You may be able to engage a thriving community online, but if their experience with the institution is fundamentally different from the onsite one, they will remain online-only visitors.”

As we discussed with Nancy Proctor and Deb Howes, what if artists and art historians—those with significant expertise in looking at and thinking about art—could be called on to create multimedia (and even text-based) content for the works of art in a museum’s permanent collection? Museums could provide guidelines about what they are looking for, vet the content, and publish to the website and mobile devices only that content that aligned with the institution’s needs. In this way, the museum can begin to move toward becoming a platform and not just a provider.

Notion 2
The Smarthistory Lab
Susan Chun is one of those people for whom great ideas are a dime a dozen. There was one she tossed out over drinks recently that fit perfectly with two strands of thinking we have been grappling with at Smarthistory. On the one hand, we have sought ways to create a community of Smarthistory users and to include and highlight their voices (we are creating comments capability in the newest version) but we had also begun to discuss creating a sandbox, tentatively named the Smarthistory Lab, a neutral ground beyond the cloistered walls of the academy and the fortress-like facades of our museums where experts from across our disciplines can explore collaborative projects. So into this mire, Susan mentions that she had been working on an article that focused on the museum label. We were both instantly focused. There is likely no aspect of museum convention more fraught then the tiny real estate given over to the label. Here, on a small bit of cardboard beside the original object, is a set of abbreviated choices that likely express far more about the current state of museological and art historical thinking than it reveals about the object it is appended to.

The Label Project
An original impetus for Smarthistory was to enrich the museum visitors’ experience. At the museum we too often see visitors focused on the scant data offered by the label and not the object, hungry for keys to the work of art in front of them. And too often we offer them only the merest sustenance, the basic stats of an artist’s birth and death, material, perplexing acquisition and provenance notations, and perhaps a brief formal reading or quote. How stingy this seems compared to the riches potentially available. Can the tired modernist fiction that the direct experience of the object must remain unencumbered by the frame of context really still be operative? Do we actually believe that the experience of seeing the objects that we display is so tentative, and so easily overwhelmed?

Our first project for the Smarthistory Lab will be a wiki for writing museum labels, framed by the aforementioned article (by Susan Chun) and a discussion on the museum label. Our questions: How can we reinvent the museum label? What should it include? Can it be digital and multi-layered so that summary can lead to in-depth resources if the visitor wants more? Could the wiki label project be a forum where scholars from museums and from universities collaborate to provide a multiplicity of voices that inform and challenge and can this be the point where the online museum intersects with the experience of the physical visitor?

Please look for the Smarthistory Lab initiative by the end of June.

— Beth Harris & Steven Zucker

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  1. Great post & what a wonderful initiative in Smarthistory Lab! I look forward to seeing you reinvent the label – it’s been a long time in coming, I agree. I’d like to explore the relationship between the label and the stop; maybe in the Future of Mobile Interpretation that Koven imagines, a label is but one kind of stop, and is networked into all the content from the other sources – artist, art historians, learned amateurs (in the French sense) that you can imagine… I can definitely see small digital screens run on watch batteries replacing the paper-mounted label eventually, and offering a broader range of both content and functionality through integrated RF or Wifi. But the technology behind the label is not important; getting the content right is.


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  3. An online label for every piece in a museum, accessible from mobile devices (and perhaps indexed based on the artwork’s location — all easily doable using Wi-Fi positioning systems like the one built into the iPhone) is a long overdue idea. But if you are thinking about building it as a wiki — with a “multiplicity of voices” involved — why not include the museum visitors themselves in that multiplicity? Wikis are open in spirit, and a wiki-based museum label should be a place where people can record their own experiences and reactions to an artwork, and maybe even attach essays / videos / photos that lead their fellow visitors on a longer journey inspired by the artwork. For a related example, take a look at how Platial.com is encouraging place-based community storytelling around geotagged photos.


    1. Okay, I’m sold. Platial.com is enormous fun and may well be the right sort of solution for including visitor generated content. This is already way too much fun. Thanks so much, we hope to see you in the sandbox.


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  7. I often visit museums and I think you do learn a lot of things about arts and artists through this. Anyway, nice article. Thank you very much for sharing your ideas and opinions here.


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