Beverly Serrell's Exhibit Labels: An Interpretative Approach serves as a foundational guide to organizing and, in turn, interpreting an exhibition through labels. Most people might find it odd that one would need a 300-plus-page book to provide instructions for creating exhibit labels. Through her thorough exploration and explanation of how ideas, themes, and audience comprehension are all mediated through labels, the author demonstrates that they are likely the most valuable and undervalued component of exhibits.
Serrell divides her book into five parts: an overview of label types/functions, audience considerations, visitor engagement, practical details, and research/evaluation. I found it interesting that she spent much of her time emphasizing "spectatorship" (i.e., audience/ visitor experiences). I'm curious – how might we reframe her book if we were to approach label creation not in terms of how best to convey our ideas to our audiences, but how best to engage our audiences in their own meaning-making? In other words, must labels always fulfill the role of interpretation as Serrell suggests in her titular approach, or can labels serve as more open-ended prompts for people to interpret history themselves?
"Strategies against architecture." Museums and the Web 2015.
Accessed September 27, 2017. http://mw2015.museumsandtheweb.com
Such questions about shared authority are best encapsulated by Serrell's discussion of "The Label's Voice" (Chapter 10), "Labels That Ask Questions" (Chapter 14), and "Digital Interpretive Devices" (Chapter 16). When creating labels, we must be cognizant of the creator's point of view, their positionality – "this is particularly important in exhibitions that present some form of debate, issue, dialogue, or strongly held opposing views" (136). Serrell touches on this issue earlier in the text when discussing the "Big Idea" of an exhibit, oscillating between the values of "controversial" and "balanced" (if there is such a thing) viewpoints. Topics themselves stir debate before any interpretation is imposed upon them; after all, nothing exists in a vacuum. As with the case of the 1995 Smithsonian controversy, choosing to do an exhibit about the Enola Gay is inherently contentious – regardless of timing or tone (16).
Likewise, "the best questions in labels are the ones visitors themselves would ask" (178). But how do we know what visitors would ask if we don't give them the space to ask such questions – either before or during the exhibition? This gets back to the issue of open-ended interpretation; is such a thing even possible? Taking a "just the facts, m'am" approach to label creation doesn't free us from the constraints of perspective and positionality because objectivity is a myth. Therefore, the establishment of "fact versus fiction" dualities only serves to contrive an institutionalized narrative of accepted meaning. As much as I hate to problematize the "factual" interpretation of evidence in the age of fake news, it still needs to be done – in part, because of white liberal historical narratives that, in their attempts to extinguish the scourge that is white supremacist scholarship, end up obfuscating and/or eclipsing the work of POC with their own "accepted truths." The assignation of meaning is an inherently political act regardless of how mundane the subject.
As such, we often attempt to engage our audiences with answerable questions – questions that visitors would ask and that the content of our exhibit answers. How might we further engage people with open-ended questions that "prompt visitors to think about their own prior knowledge and experience and construct or retrieve a thought that is their own personal creation" (186)? I am a fan of "talkback panels" (as Serrell identifies them), on which visitors are given the opportunity to provide their own answers – thus interpreting history themselves and relating it to their own experiences. Take, for instance:
- "The Pen" – which allows people to annotate and "collect" objects from the collections for viewing at home, aggregated as accounts of their visits
- The QRator Project – a custom app built for use on iPads-cum-exhibit labels, replete with background info, QR codes for more details, questions, and comments sections
- The AMLABEL Digital Gallery Display – which curators can update in real-time, and visitors can adjust language and font size, as well as access the information on their smart devices.
I was excited to see Serrell's suggestion that we "let visitors annotate the labels" (227). Though she suggests this in the context of digital tools, the "old-fashioned" way still applies. In a sense, something as small as providing the infamous sticky notes for visitors to share their testimonies aids us in reframing facts and fiction collectively – at least depending on who our audience actually is, what visitor cohort they fit into. Serrell distinguishes identifying the audience as a precursor to shaping visitor experience. How do we identify our audiences holistically while taking into account accessibility of word (reading level, density, and language) and image (textual interplay, comprehensibility, ability). How can could labels grow beyond this limited dependence on visually-based evidence and interpretation to encompass multiple mediums like oral history and perhaps even scent, taste, and touch?