Talk About Museum Fatigue!

My first task at the Adirondack Museum?  Read every single label and record how long it takes to go through each exhibit.  At first thought, this appears to be a silly task that would only be assigned to an intern.  On closer inspection, you may change your mind.

Reading every label at the Adirondack Museum is no small task.  The museum campus has 26 buildings.  Of those 26 buildings, 22 house one or more exhibits.

(See the Museum Visitor Guide here: http://www.adkmuseum.org/resources/documents/ADK_Visitor_Guide.pdf)

Additionally, there are labels scattered outdoors throughout the campus.  If a visitor entered the museum and read every single label on the campus, it would take them 13 hours and 10 minutes (or at least that is how long it took me).  Although I did take breaks from the activity to fulfill other tasks, it took me four days to read every single label.  It was an excellent way to familiarize myself with the institution, especially since my summer will be filled with evaluating and suggesting improvements for visitors’ experiences in exhibits and programs.

This activity got me to thinking, how many curators have taken the time to read every single label in their exhibit.  Yes, they proofread labels over and over again before mounting the exhibit, but do they ever go back through and read their work?  Do new curators take the time to read all of their predecessor’s work in the institution’s permanent exhibits?  If you don’t truly know what is on the gallery walls of your institution, how can you improve?  If it takes three hours to read every label in an exhibit (whether or not it is one of many exhibits within the institution), don’t you think it is time to do some editing and weeding out?

I challenge you to go read every label in your exhibits.  You will learn a lot, if the fatigue doesn’t get to you first!

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3 Responses to Talk About Museum Fatigue!

  1. Emilie Arnold says:

    Wow, that’s a terrific assignment with amazing results. Thirteen+ hours! When I personally visit a museum, I rarely feel compelled to read everything–just the panels about the things that really catch my eye and pique my interest. Not to state the obvious, but I guess the lesson on the exhibit development side of things is not only to express what needs to be expressed in label copy as succinctly as possible… but also to adhere strictly to that principle. I admire your museum stamina!

  2. Ginny says:

    I thought of this recently as I walked past a gallery for the 25 + time without actually stopping to absorb the content. While museum professionals enjoy going to museums, other responsibilities prevent them from seriously venturing into their own exhibitions. Moving exhibit concepts and content from paper to the walls changes everything. Experiencing exhibitions (even in your own museum) like a visitor has real value. As you’ve suggested, seeing an exhibition in this way will make us all more conscious of the audiences we aim to serve.

  3. Bernie Gallagher says:

    So, I also learned the hard way about intern assignments too. Not only did I have to read every label in the “old” World Series exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame I also needed to document the exhibit too. However, since I am a “seamhead” baseball nerd, transcribing each text panel and every label was not work at all. Slowly meandering around the exhibit with a pad of paper and pen was made easier during the winter when the museum was virtually empty. Photographing the objects – in the exhibit cases and the photographs in the exhibit was also easier without interruptions. The two text panels recapping the highlights of the seasons for the two teams in the most recent World Series was like two chapters in a Cooper novel – long and rambling that gave me writer’s cramps. In the end, I found typos and misspellings of names of ballplayers and a president too. Two years later, the Hall redesigned the exhibit (it’s smaller now) and I know I had a hand in it.

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