Text and Labels in Museum Exhibitions

Object from the WAM History Department. Photo by Jessica Needle.
Object from the WAM History Department. Photo by Jessica Needle.

Image copyright WA MuseumText offers information which contributes to visitors’ appreciation of a topic.  They should be an integral part of an exhibition.  Visitors often use labels to tell each other about the subject and as a springboard for discussion between themselves. 

Ideally it would be nice to do without labels.  The reality is that objects do not speak for themselves but need interpretation of various kinds; written information has an important role to play.  However, labels are inflexible in that they do not allow the audience to ask questions.  They therefore need to be exact and clear in the information they are offering.  Information should be simple and precise.  A good target audience for labels is high school students who are reasonably literate but not necessarily very worldly.

For clarity and ease of reading it is important that a hierarchy of information be visually obvious.  This can be done by size differentiation and spacing.  The following points are a good guide to effective labelling.

  • Main headings and introductory statements should be the largest, most visible information in the display.  It should help to put the display in context and assist the visitor to understand the thrust of the display.  Headings should be brief and not obscure.  Headings should not be sentences but may be accompanied by an explanatory sentence or two (but no more than two).
  • General information: All text should be given clear descriptive sub-headings so that visitors can follow the display, just by reading the sub-headings.  Where practical, try to help the text with objects, illustrations, maps or diagrams - whatever will attract interest and help to explain the topic.
  • Object and illustration labels: It should be visually obvious that the label and the object have a relationship without having to read a word.  Museum visitors are more interested in things than in reading so these are the most read information in any museum.  It is therefore an advantage to include some general text with an object label, if possible.
  • Courtesy labels acknowledge object donors or copyright holders.  The information does not usually contribute to the understanding of the display and hence can be very small indeed.
Alternative label types

Key labels: 

A disadvantage of this system is lack of flexibility.  Slats can be used, such as those used for business directories in large buildings.  Their advantage is an absence of a multitude of labels.

  • Number keys - Always make the number with the object and the number on the label identical in style and colour.
  • Pictorial keys -The picture could be a line drawing, a silhouette or a photograph. They have the advantage of being more interactive.

Portable labels

Can be laminated cards which are returned after use, or a booklet of sufficient quality to be kept as a souvenir of the visit

Audio labels

Audio systems are prone to break-down, so a back-up is needed.  There should always be enough information with a display to ensure that visitors can understand it when the system is down.

Design of labels


  • Note that the size of a label relative to others in a display is important for ease of use.
  • There should be very clear size difference between the various levels (hierarchy) of information.  Ideally sub-headings should be twice the size of the accompanying text; the main heading should be twice the size of the subheadings.
  • Object labels can be the same size or smaller than general text.
  • Donor or copyright information should be so small that it does not compete for visitor attention.


  • Sentences: Choose a simple classical style (typeface) for text and labels.  Type with serifs is easier to read but sans-serif styles can be used successfully.  Light weight (thin) letters are harder to read than medium weight or heavy weights.
  • Headings and sub-headings: Choose bold type (heavy weight) styles.  It is quite acceptable to use sans serif styles for headings with serif-styled text.  Newspapers do it successfully.
  • Use Italics for quotes and for scientific names.  Italics can also be used to create emphasis of difference between sections of text.
  • Avoid ornate styles except for simple, short headings which are not hard to read. Never use ornate styles for numbers, including dates.


  • Never ever attach a display label to an object.  Direct and indirect damage is likely to be done by pins or adhesives.  The integrity of the object will also be diminished.
  • Text is most easily read on angled label stands which visitors can actually lean on.  This is the ideal for any complex information.
  • In showcases text is best located at the front, at a comfortable reading height.
  • Detailed text should not be located behind objects - it is more difficult to see and may mean that people lean on the object.  Large headings and explanatory sentences are the only text which works behind an object.

Interactive labels include:

  • Pictorial key
  • Question which is easily answered by looking at the display or lifting a flap.
  • Press-buttons which make a light flash can be stimulating but they need to do more than simply give one answer.

Successful interactives are those which engage the visitor in some way.

The best materials

Labels which are done by tried and true methods such as by hand, stencil or typewriter. Letraset, or silk-screen are still viable but less economical and easy to access than the two methods detailed below:

Personal Computer Labels:

Labels produced on a computer and printed by laser printer - printed or photocopied onto special paper - are easy and economical to produce. They can be:

  • Laminated and then mounted onto rigid board
  • Mounted onto rigid board which is then heat-sealed
  • Mounted onto a rigid board and sprayed with clear lacquer
  • Mounted on the back of polycarbonate sheet
  • Mounted in a frame with an acrylic or glass cover. These labels are suitable for external use behind polycarbonate or glass, in a well-sealed support frame.

Vinyl-cut lettering:

Self-adhesive lettering which is made to specification.  The whole label is generated on a computer.  The computer sends the information to an automatic cutting machine which cuts the image into self-adhesive vinyl material.  A large range of sizes and colours are available.  This method is not cheap but offers a very good result and a wide range of possibilities and it is also suitable for external use. It is recommended that “10 year vinyl” is requested.  This is apparently thinner than “5-year vinyl”

The lettering can be:

  • Transferred onto any smooth surface such as cardboard, foamcore board, foamex board, acrylic
  • Transferred onto clear materials such as glass, acrylic or polcarbonate.  If it is to be mounted on the back of transparent materials, it must be ordered back-to-front

Outside labels

The most suitable methods are the two described above, silk-screened, engraved metal or sign writing.  The key to success is to use durable materials and to mount/erect them with care in a protected position. Engraved metal is the most durable but it is by far the most expensive and is difficult to integrate with photographs and illustrations.




Plastic material commonly called perspex. Perspex is actually a brand name; acrylic is the material



Different to Lamination. This process bonds a plastic resin to a flat surface, one side only. Usually a matte or satin finish. Less easily available and more expensive than lamination. Can be done to rigid board or to paper.



Process which bonds a plastic resin to the back and front of an item. The item has to be flexible enough to go through rollers so is limited to a paper or very light card.

Never to be used on original material.



Durable, “vandal-resistant” plastic material. Used for roofing material.


Brand name for plastic coated metal, popular roofing material


Any style of lettering without little feet (like this)


Little feet on letters are called serifs

References and further reading:

Museums Australia Inc (NSW), Museum Methods, A Practical Manual for Managing Small Museums, Sections 5.1 Developing an exhibition p3; 5.4 Exhibiton texts; and 5.5 Writing exhibition labels

 Australian Museum, Writing Text and Labels