Scanning labels at the Melbourne Museum.

David Wallis, Labels, Digital Included, Assume New Importance at Museums, The New York Times, 17 March 2015

Like a primatologist observing gorillas in the wild, Judy Rand sometimes prowls around museums to spy on visitors. Ms. Rand, a museum consultant in Seattle and an acclaimed writer of exhibit labels, loves spotting guests reading her work aloud.

When visitors share information from labels, “we are reaching new readers — pass-along readers,” Ms. Rand said. “Then they have a chance to have a conversation about it. Then they can remember things.”

Lucy Harland, a museum consultant in Glasgow, encourages her clients to monitor their museums covertly for mutterers. “When you see people muttering under their breath, that is when you know” the label fails, she said.

Museums increasingly pay attention to labels — or “brief, little ambassadors,” in the words of Beverly Serrell, author of “Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach. Specialists often write, edit and design labels, and some museums impanel focus groups to test them. Many cultural institutions have also turned to digital technology to transform static labels into compelling interactive attractions. It is a monumental shift from the clay drum discovered in the ruins of Ennigaldi-Nanna’s museum in Babylon (now modern-day Iraq). The cylinder, which has text in three languages, dates to the sixth century B.C. and is considered to be the first object label.

“Labels have always been a big topic in museological practice,” said Seb Chan, director of digital and emerging media at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. He cites a blistering 1963 article, “Why Johnny Can’t Read Labels,” published in Curator: The Museum Journal. The author, George Weiner of the Smithsonian Institution, derided many midcentury museums as “veritable masterpieces of cryptography” because of terse, uninformative labels (called tombstones in curatorial jargon). He also railed against rambling labels “designed to frighten off all but the most persevering museum viewer.”

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