5 Great Exhibit Labels and What Makes Them Great

We’ve been wondering – what makes a great label? We asked AMM member Cathy Hamaker, Leonid Production LLC, a museum exhibit and interactive developer located in Indianapolis, Indiana, to share a few great labels they’ve spotted “in the wild” recently – and what makes those labels so great.

When I teach my class in Exhibit Planning and Design at Indiana University at Indianapolis, I often spend two whole lectures talking about exhibit text and labels. This is partly because labels are one of my favorite things to talk about generally, and because I feel that while most of my students are not likely to become exhibit designers per se, there’s an excellent chance that some of them will at some point write a label that a visitor is expected to read. Badly written labels are everywhere, and I’d just as soon my students don’t inflict terrible text on innocent readers. Not on my watch! Toward this end I have a sizable collection of example photos of Bad Labels—too wordy, too busy, poor contrast, bad color choices, worse font choices, mysterious random facts unconnected to nearby exhibitry—the list goes on.

I’m embarrassed to say that my collection of photos of good labels is much smaller; not because there aren’t good labels aplenty in our institutions, but because we sometimes overlook documenting what’s done well at the expense of what’s been done poorly. This is something I plan to correct in future, and to kick it off I’d like to show you all a few labels I’ve seen in recent years that strike me as great examples of the art.


Photo shows the label discussed in this section. It says "Becoming an Eagle Scout" in white letters on orange backgrounds. Photos and artifacts are floating in the case next to the text with orange color borders or frames around them.
Label example from Gerald R Ford Presidential Library and Museum

I stopped by the Ford Museum while at the 2019 AMM conference in Grand Rapids. One type of label I really enjoy are ones that integrate collections objects with photos and text in a visually dynamic way, and this is a great example in my opinion. While most of the scouting objects here are not super-colorful, the use of that bright orange-yellow as a pop color both for the header background and the frames around the photos/letter brightens the whole label without pulling focus away from the assemblage of objects and the explanatory text. I also appreciate that the body copy is short, to the point, and emphasizes President Ford’s lifelong connections to the state of Michigan.


Photo depicts the label being described in this section. This interactive label has a fake honey comb frame that you can lift up from the beekeeper's hive to view the honeycomb inside. Labels say "Beekeepers lift the frames to check the hive for honey!" and "This frame is only half capped in wax, so leave it in the hive to be filled."
Label example from The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

Interactive development is also one of my interests, and The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis has some amazing ones. I love the way the developer in this instance has combined a prompt for what to do (lift up the frame to check for “honey”) and a few key facts about bees and beekeepers with a simple mechanical interactive. I also like that the prompt for reset—“leave (this frame) in the hive to be filled”—is part of the content delivery rather than simply “Please reset this activity for the next visitor.” Reset is often a complicated aspect of interactive design, and it’s great that it’s baked into the activity here.


Photo depicts the label discussed in this section. It says "Put it Together" in big bold letters, with examples of hinges and methods of connecting pieces of cardboard on display - slot, flange, hinge, tab, slit, punch, notch, and fold.
Label example from Indiana State Museum “Cardboard Engineering” exhibit.

In 2018, the Indiana State Museum put together a beautiful exhibit called “Cardboard Engineering,” which encouraged visitors to create amazing constructions out of cardboard using basic tools. This prompt label is deceptively simple, and I absolutely love it. Eight different ways of connecting/manipulating the basic material of the exhibit are illustrated with real dimensional pieces rather than flat diagrams; the “Put It Together” header serves as a prompt and as encouragement—yes, you can tear, cut, and manipulate cardboard to build what you want—and it too is dimensional, made of layers of cardboard built up and then cut to letter shape. The choices of bright pink and yellow liven up the otherwise dull color of the cardboard samples, pulling this piece together nicely.


Photo depicts a section of an interactive label where the text is visible through a keyhole window on a turning dial. It says "Your humours are hot and dry. Bloodletting is necessary to reduce your fever. Do you live?" and in red color text, it says "No, you die."
Label example from the Mutter Museum’s “Going Viral” installation

The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia is best known for its somewhat gruesome displays of medical specimens; however, they also have a great temporary exhibit space which in 2021 had an installation called “Going Viral.” Planned pre-pandemic, it focused on the topic of our understanding of infection throughout history. This included an explanation of the humour theory of health, coupled with an interactive matching one’s zodiac sign with its supposed humour profile. I really liked the wedge-shaped and center justified text layout in the revealed window of this simple dial-turn interactive. The finality of “No, you die” at the point of the wedge, with one word per line, struck me as both hilarious and a very clear communication of the message of the interactive: humour theory is not a good way to treat disease, no matter what your sign is.


Photo depicts the label discussed in this section, picture a drawing and photos of a Florida Cottonmouth snake with text about how to identify it. It says "Nope, that's not where cotton comes from and you sure don't want to try to pick it! The Florida Cottonmouth gets its name because when frightened, it coils and opens its jaws, revealing a white, cotton colored mouth."
Example label from Gatorland

From here on out, when I try to explain “voice” to my students or clients, I’m planning to use Gatorland Zoo in Orlando as my best example of choosing and using a consistent voice for labels. Gatorland is a great zoo—don’t be fooled by the giant plaster alligator jaws at the entry, they are doing some very cool education throughout their park. They’ve very deliberately chosen a folksy, friendly, and approachable voice for their label text, as seen in this example next to a live animal display. Key points about cottonmouth snakes are covered without getting excessively wordy. Their chosen hand-printing styled font reinforces the tone of the text as well. While I’ve not talked to any of Gatorland’s content writers, I suspect that their label voice is also intended to emphasize the difference in approach between their zoo and other nearby well-known attractions…

This label is displayed inside the mouth of an alligator sculpture, not meant to be climbed. It says "This ain't a Magical Kingdom, so we ain't responsible for you or your kids being all "goofy" and climbin' on this statue, fallin' off, and hurtin' yourself."
Label inside of an alligator sculpture at Gatorland


When you’ve got an exhibit to install and a short time to do so, it’s often easy for label writing and design to get pushed to the back of the priority list. But even a little thought given to length, voice, layout, and placement can transform an adequate label into a great one. I look forward to adding more fantastic labels to my lectures in the future!