Museum label

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A basic object label at the de Young Museum

A museum label, also referred to as a caption or tombstone,[1] is a label describing an object exhibited in a museum or one introducing a room or area.[2][3] Museum labels tend to list the artist's name, the artwork's name, the year the art was completed, and the materials used. They may also include a summary, description, the years the artist lived, and the dimensions of the work. When such labels are used in an art gallery setting they often also include the price of the artwork.

Increasingly, labels in non-English-speaking countries have labels in English as well as the main local language, and in some parts of the world, labels in three or more languages are common.[citation needed]


The first known museum label

The first known museum labels are from the Ennigaldi-Nanna's museum originally dating to circa 530 BCE.[4][5]

The museum labels of the 20th century and 21st century BCE items found in Ennigaldi's museum were labeled in three different languages on clay cylinders as to what the centuries-old objects were.[6][7][8]

Some of these artifacts were:

  • a kudurru, Kassite boundary marker (carved with a snake and emblems of various gods).
  • part of a statue of King Shulgi.
  • clay cone that was part of a building at Larsa.[5]

Museum-like behavior occurred as early as the 19th-century BCE which gave indications of steps of labeling and cataloging antiquities.[9][10]

A "museum label" cylinder tablet describing 100-year-old antiquity objects of circa 2000 BCE read,

These are copies from bricks found in the ruins of Ur, the work of Bur-Sin of Ur, which while searching for the groundplan (of the temple) the Governor of Ur found, and I saw and wrote out for the marvel of the beholder.[9][11]

By the end of the 19th century, object labels, usually with less information than modern examples, had become standard in Western museums.

Label types[edit]

Introduction label, from a museum in Poland (but in English)

Introduction labels[edit]

Introduction labels are typically large, placed on a wall, and intended to give a broad summary of the contents of one or more galleries. They have large font sizes that can be read from many paces away.

Kim Kenney, curator of the William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum says that the first label a visitor should see should explain the exhibit display in general. The introduction label should be a "teaser" and talk about the main sections of the exhibit to encourage people to explore the rest. If there is something significant or special within the main exhibit, it should be introduced here. At this point, the visitor should have a general sense for what the museum is about. Visitors should understand immediately what they are going to see and they should be motivated to see the entire exhibit. Perhaps a brochure would accompany the introduction explaining the main museum, the price, and the hours.[2]

Section labels[edit]

A section label is a small introduction consisting of sub-topics in a museum exhibition. Kenney says they should represent the "meat" of the museum. If the section is large, perhaps more than one section label is in order. The description should consist of approximately 100–200 words. The visitor should not be strained to read all the labels, so they should be on the short side if anything.[2]

Object labels[edit]

Bilingual "side-by-side" type from Germany.

Object labels are the smallest of the museum labels. Their scope is limited to the individual objects they are displayed next to. Typically, the title of the work or a descriptive title phrase is given, followed by the name and often, the dates of the artist, and the date and place the object was created. The artist may precede the title. The materials or technique of the object are normally given, either before or after any short passage describing or interpreting the object. Increasingly, object labels may include a brief description or commentary.

If the object is included in an audio guide or some other form of tour, there may be a symbol indicating this. Kenney says she prefers object labels contain a one word title followed by a 25–50 word description for a museum label. She explains that people want specific aspects of the object they might not notice at first glance or might not have already known (i.e. something unusual, material made of, date of artifact, who made). Most people want to know specifics like when it was made, why it was made, usage and when it became part of the museum.[2]

The lowest part of the label, after a gap, usually has other information in note form, often in a smaller font size. An accession number is often given, and often the accession date. Practice varies as to whether accession dates and donor information are included. Some donations, especially from government organizations, may specify a credit on the label. Loaned objects are usually specified in some way. It is the opinion of Kenney that donor information clutters up the object label. She believes it is better to give a list of donors on a general credit panel,[2] but this does not seem very common, at least for expensive objects like some paintings.

A different approach to layout is to put all the main "data", usually on the left, and then beside it the description or commentary. When a number of small objects are displayed together, they are normally given small numbers beside them, which tie in to a group label.

Use of digital technologies[edit]

A modern decorative museum label, at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site

There are studies recently[when?] done that demonstrate the feasibility of a wireless Web-based tool for an in-gallery paperless digital label system, perhaps in the form of "Digital Label Towers" or wall mounted digital displays. Some concepts that could be used then is changing configurations of the museum labels, digitally updating the electronic museum label, usability on various display systems, and integrate third party content.[3]

Some museums use barcodes[12] or QR codes on their labels (such as for QRpedia).


  1. ^ "Museums Explained: Definitions". Traditional Fine Arts Organization website. Retrieved 2019-10-15.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  2. ^ a b c d e Writing Exhibit Labels / object labels Archived 2011-04-30 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ a b The Enduring Label — How Shall We Label Our Exhibit Today? Applying the Principles of On-Line Publishing to an On-Site Exhibition
  4. ^ Woolley, Excavations at Ur: a record of twelve years' work., p. 238 The room was a museum of local antiquities maintained by the princess Belshalti-Nannar, and in the collection was this clay drum, the earliest museum label known...
  5. ^ a b Casey, p. "First Public Museum" Around 530 B.C.E. in Ur, an educational museum containing a collection of labeled antiquities was founded by Ennigaldi-Nannathe, daughter of Nabonidus, the last king of Babylonia.
  6. ^ THE PRECURSORS OF MUSEUMS[permanent dead link]
  7. ^ Leon, p. 36 When archaeologists excavated certain parts of the palace and temple complex at Ur, they were puzzled to find dozens of artifacts, neatly arranged side by side whose ages varied by hundreds of years. Then clay drums with labels in three languages showed up — the first known museum labels.
  8. ^ Woolley, Ur of the Chaldees pp. 252–259
  9. ^ a b Woolley, Excavations at Ur: a record of twelve years' work., p. 236
  10. ^ The Role of Museums and the Professional Code of Ethics, p. 1
  11. ^ Former Met director—and first-time professor—Philippe de Montebello takes the podium to explain how collectors have anointed "art" through the ages An excavation at the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, in modern-day Iraq, found what is considered the oldest museum label: a 19th-century BCE tablet describing an object, then 100 years old, presented, as it read, "...for the marvel of the beholder."
  12. ^ Running a Museum: A Practical Handbook, p. 30 describes bar codes in "museum labels".


  • Casey, Wilson, Firsts: Origins of Everyday Things That Changed the World, Penguin, 2009, ISBN 1-59257-924-8.
  • León, Vicki, Uppity women of ancient times, Conari Press, 1995, ISBN 1-57324-010-9.
  • Woolley, Leonard, Ur "of the Chaldees": the final account, Excavations at Ur, Herbert Press, 1982, ISBN 0-906969-21-2.
  • Woolley, Leonard, Excavations at Ur — A Record of Twelve Years Work by Sir Leonard Woolley, Ernest Benn Limited, 1955, printed in Great Britain.

External links[edit]