Museum Labels DIY

If you are looking for creative ways to convert your living space into a museum quality display exhibit, this article might just do the trick. We will show you how (and with what) to accentuate your collection with museum labels, also referred to as captions or tombstones.

To get started, here is a list of supplies you will need for the project:

  • Word Processor or Canva
  • 65lb Heavyweight Glossy or Luster Paper
  • Inkjet Color Printer
  • Foam Board
  • Spray Adhesive
  • Box Cutter
  • Painters Tape
  • Double-Sided Foam Mounting Tape
  • Level

Museum Labels

Museums typically deploy three types of museum labels, each with a very specific purpose.

An introduction label is the first label a visitor sees upon entering an exhibit area. Using large font sizes that can be read from a comfortable distance, this label highlights the overarching theme of the exhibit.

The second type of museum label is a section label. This label introduces and explains a specific sub-topic within an exhibit. To ensure a visitor can quickly read and digest content, the description should not exceed 200 words. 

The third label, and the focus of our project, is the object label. Object labels are the most concise of the three museum labels and used to describe individual objects and/or photographs on display.

Object Label

The object label consists of three primary parts: (1) a title, followed by (2) the name of the object or artist, the date and place the object was created or discovered, and then (3) a short passage describing or interpreting the object. 

While parts one and two of the object label are straightforward, the objective of the description section will vary by object. Regardless of the object being described, here are a few things to consider.

RELATED ARTICLE: Loaning Your Items to a Museum? Here’s What You Need to Know.

When crafting the description, keep in mind that with most objects, a visitor can plainly see what is before them. Instead of rehashing what has already been stated in the title and the identification sections of the label, use the description section to educate the viewer on specific or unique aspects they might not know of or notice. And when writing the description, make every word count.

Object Label Anatomy

When it comes to the design of an object label, the three most important elements are font, space, and contrast. The National Park Service (NPS) for example, adheres to very specific guidelines for park signage and museum labels. We will use their standards as our overarching guide.

Typeface

While you might be tempted to use decorative or whimsical fonts to capture the historical essence of an object, such fonts should be avoided.

Typeface (or font) should always be chosen based on the highest degree of legibility. The NPS uses the sans-serif face Frutiger, initially designed for ease of reading on road guide signs, and Rawlinson (and its variation NPS Roadway) which was developed specifically for the National Park Service.

Being that NPS fonts are not readily available within most word processors, consider using more accessible sans-serif fonts such as Arial, Trebuchet, Helvetica, Tahoma, or Univers for your museum labels.

Example

In our example, we chose fonts from the sans-serif family:

Museum label sans-serif font

Type Size

To ensure maximum legibility for a wide range of audiences, the NPS never uses type sizes smaller than 24 points in their exhibits. When using a larger type size, you will sacrifice word count or canvas size in exchange for legibility. Depending on the size and scope of your exhibit area, such a sacrifice might not be in your best interest. While not straying too far from the NPS type size standard, we believe there should be some flexibility for home-based exhibits.

RELATED ARTICLE: Operating Practices of Small Museums

Example

Type size was chosen based on available space for our object label:

Museum label font size

Letter, Line, & Word Spacing

Regardless of the type size you choose, there should be ample space between characters, words, and lines. Line spacing may be adjusted based on the volume of text and overall design of the object label. Such spacing allows each word to be easily read, while ensuring each individual component of the label is distinguishable in and of itself.

Line Length

To ensure uniformity of text lines and paragraphs, the NPS established layout grids that uses a flush-left alignment, an open line to separate paragraphs instead of indenting, and discourages hyphens.

Example

The spacing in our example allows each section, word, and illustration to breath:

Object Label spacing

Color & Contrast

As a rule of thumb, the stronger the contrast between font and its background, the more legible the font. The NPS approaches contrast in two ways, prescribing either black type on a light background (not white) or white type on a dark background. NPS strongly discourages white backgrounds as they create glare which will reduce legibility.

Example

In our example, we chose black type (RGB 0,0,0) and an off-white background (RGB 255,255,240).

Object label font and background color contrast

Layout

With all signage, the NPS states that “information should follow clear hierarchical patterns, and the elements . . . should be sensibly located and follow logical progressions.”

Information should always be presented in easily followed sequences, starting with a headline, continuing with text that explains the label’s subject, and concluding with more details, along with illustrations as needed. Similar to the decorative fonts, decorative elements should be avoided.

Example

In our example, we incorporated four distinct elements that follow a logical progression.

Object label layout

Design Tools

While object labels can certainly be created and templatized using readily available tools such as Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, we chose to create our labels using Canva; a free, online design studio with plenty of upgrades (not free) for the more sophisticated designer.

For our example, we set our canvas size at 6in x 8in, and then used Canva’s margins and print bleed guides to ensure the proper fit of our content.  

LEARN MORE: Museum Collection Software

Once you have locked your design, you can export the file in a variety of formats. Of the formats available for export, we strongly advise exporting your object label to a “Print Ready” PDF, as this provides the best resolution for print.

When we exported our file, we chose to add crop marks and a printer bleed. These additions will make your professional printer very happy; and if you choose to do the printing yourself, the crop marks will come in handy when affixing the print to foam board.

Object label print marks

Another tip is to save your design, so you can copy and use it as a template for future labels.

Printing

At this point in the process, the easiest way to complete your object label is to have a professional printer print and prepare your label for mounting.

For the do-it-yourselfers, we suggest printing your label on a 65lb gloss or luster paper. In terms of paper weight, the heavier the weight, the thicker the sheet. The thicker the sheet, the more impressive it looks and feels. In our experience, we have found that 65lb weighted paper provides both a professional look and feel, while still being able to be printed on home inkjet & laser printers.

Once printed, you will then need to affix the sheet upon foam board.

Foam Board

The thicker the board, the more durable it will be and the more substantial it will appear when mounted on a surface.

Readily available on Amazon or at your local arts and craft store, foam board is typically offered in three popular thicknesses: 1/8″, 3/16″, and 1/2″ thick or 3mm, 5mm, and 13mm. For our example, we used a 5mm thick foam board.

Affixing Label

Using Elmer’s multi-purpose spray adhesive, lightly mist the entire backside of your printed document, especially its corners. Once sprayed, gently lay the document on top of the foam board. Using a plastic applicator (we used a credit card), gently brush the face of the document in a down and upward motion to ensure the document properly adheres to the foam board. Follow the instructions on the spray adhesive regarding drying time.

Once dried, use a box cutter to cut the label (now affixed to the foam board) into its final shape. Prior to cutting, make sure to place the foam board on top of something you do not mind getting scratched or cut. Tip: a discarded cardboard box will usually do the trick.

Mounting

Now that your label is ready to mount, we suggest using a combination of painters tape and double-sided foam mounting tape. The painter’s tape will protect the surface of the wall if you decide to rearrange your exhibit in the future. And the thickness of the mounting tape helps set the label off the wall, creating a floating effect.

Painters tape
Painters tape will protect your wall or mounting surface from damage in the event you move the object label in the future.
Mounting tape
Double-sided mounting tape will add a floating effect to your object label.

Apply the painters tape to the wall, making sure its centered in the area where the label will be positioned. Next, add several strips of mounting tape to the center of foam board. Using a level, affix the object label to the painter tape. And with that, you too can create your own museum quality exhibit at home!

Museum labels
(Left) The mounted object label. (Right) Object and label placement recommendations.

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