Home » Uncategorized » Digital Exhibit Labels (1 of 2) – Balancing Opportunities and Challenges

Digital Exhibit Labels (1 of 2) – Balancing Opportunities and Challenges

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For my final project in the Masters of Learning Science & Technology (MLS&T) program I reviewed the potential of digital labels for museum learning. The project focus on informal learning was inspired by my deep fascination with museums, in part fostered by growing up near Washington D.C. as the nerdy kid of a super nerd dad. Lynda Kelly at the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) guided the topic selection by graciously agreeing to act as my ‘client’ for the project and enabling access to in-house research and staff expertise.

To start I assumed I would be exploring wall mounted replacements for the text cards found next to exhibits, with some sort of data feed system. Wrong! Museums and researchers are trialing many new forms of labels, and indeed crossing previously conceived boundaries between labels, guides, interactives and signage. Although usually conceptualised as text or graphics Screven’s definition of exhibit labels is more comprehensive – “all types of media – print, audio, and graphics and their presentation formats – used to help visitors interpret and relate to exhibit content, have an emotive impact, or motivate attention and effort”. Beyond the museum delivery of information Screven focuses back on the visitor, situating labels as helping to, in some way, augment a visitors experience or changing their understanding.

Contemporary technology has further unbound the potential of the label by making digital exhibit labels possible, and delivering content far beyond simply text or graphics. I found a vast diversity of technology examples in both academic and industry sources with implementations ranging on variables such as hardware (installed tablets to mobile), platform (websites to apps), software (off the shelf or custom), access triggers (QR code to RFID to beacon), content delivery (user selected to machine suggested), content format (text based to interactive), author (curator to visitor), location driven (offsite accessible or onsite location-based), and much more. Indeed it appears that technology can deliver to nearly any imagined vision for a digital exhibit label implementation.

For the final report I narrowed down to a manageable list of examples, starting with technology that is a substitution for conventional labels and advancing to tools that innovate the museum experience (full example list and references). Below are a few selected examples highlighting digital label diversity of fixed installation, responsive website, learning focused and innovation.

    • Fixed Installation – First Peoples Digital Labels – To complement large object and photographic displays, the Melbourne Museum installed tablets with interactive digital labels, as well as a responsive web version of the digital labels.

Fixed Installation – First Peoples Digital Labels

    • Responsive Website – Google Cultural Institute – Responsive website collection of artifacts from partner cultural institutes. General users and museum professionals can create, share and comment on custom galleries/tours. Partner institutes also have access to Google tools to create and publish content on the cultural institute website, within custom Google app or embedded in the institute’s website.
Responsive Website - ANMM Google

Responsive Website – ANMM Google

    • Learning Focused – MyArtSpace – OOKL is the commercial version of the MyArtSpace learning platform, accessible pre-visit, onsite, and post visit. Visitors use a mobile device to collect a visit diary and data (ex. photo, audio, notes). Data, diary and additional museum supplied content is then made available for visitors to remix content into reflective presentations.
OOKL MyArtSpace

Learning Tool – MyArtSpace

  • Innovation – The Pen – Visitors to the Cooper Hewitt are given a Pen device, which can digitally collect objects viewed (RFID) as well as design and save creations developed with interactive table exhibits. The Pen records user visits, making the visitor experience accessible and sharable post visit, both offsite or at a return visit.

Innovation – The Pen

Mixing research findings with technology examples it is apparent that traditional exhibit labels, and to a greater extent digital exhibit labels can augment both the emotional and intellectual aspects of an individual or group museum experience. Perhaps a video will elicit more emotive connections for one visitor, whereas using a device to track their visit will inspire others to reflect on their visit at a later date. It is clear that digital exhibit labels can enable visitors and museum staff to alter perceptions of a museum experience, by helping to create opportunities such as:

  • Unexpected experiences
  • Social participation
  • Increased engagement
  • Broader audience relevance
  • Extend access offsite
  • Bridging contexts
  • Customisation
  • Personalisation
  • Data analysis and augmentation
  • Efficient content update, reuse & automation
  • Variety of author voice

The technology in itself is exciting, but any opportunities supported by digital exhibit labels remain situated within the broader museum context. Implementation of any digital exhibit label will need to be integrated within an already dense network of museum communications, supports, and voices including: websites, paper guides, signage, worksheets, volunteers, marketing, curators, designers, collections data, member data.

Beyond the expected human and technology interactions (i.e. usability, functionality), museums must consider the impact of technology to the whole network inclusive of social interactions, physical environment, individual preference, promotional signage, user distraction, staff workflows, and even change in visitor expectations (i.e. what to do when tech fails).

Museum Network

Museum Learning Network Interactions

Even the coolest gadgets, functionality or content can only be successful when practical considerations to the whole museum system are addressed. Challenges to be considered include:

  • Costs of technology & maintenance
  • Reliability of access
  • Expanded personnel competencies
  • Professional development
  • Content development & maintenance
  • Social moderation
  • Systems integration
  • Consistency across platforms
  • Added complexity of delivery
  • Data collection & management
  • Geo-location inconsistency
  • Equity of access
  • Roll-out communication
  • Usage instructions
  • Technical support & training
  • Feedback systems

While researching digital exhibit label technology I uncovered a vast array of examples, many proof of concept prototypes, some insights into implementation challenges and early evidence of efficacy for learning. However, the current enthusiasm for creation of new technology for museum visitors lacks the support of analysis of long-term benefits for the museum or visitor as well as guidance on how to make that technology sustainable.

Although, there is no concrete answer for what digital exhibit label is best for any given museum we do know the technology is some combination of innovation and disruption. Case in point is The O at the MONA in Tasmania, where traditional labels do not exist and the handheld O is your only guide. The ability to like, dislike and comment on objects using The O gives visitors a powerful voice in influencing staff decisions, but also creates a dependence on technology as without technology there is no label or guiding curatorial voice.


The O at MONA in Tasmania

As a researcher and a museum nerd, I am excited for museums to continue to endeavour to build tools that may influence current cultural beliefs about what it is to experience a museum.

Museums please … think big, prototype and evaluate! 

A big thank you to my very patient supervisors at the University of Sydney: Lina Markauskaite and Lucila Carvalho.

References, Links and General Inspiration:

Art Gallery of NSW (2015) Art sets and art tours. Retrieved May 2015 from

Baldwin, T., & Kuriakose, L. T. (2009). Cheap, accurate RFID tracking of museum visitors for personalized content delivery. Presented at the Museums and the Web 2009, Indianapolis, Indiana. Retrieved June 2015 from

Bernstein, S. (2015a). Inside out. [Blog post] Retrieved May 2013 from

Bitgood, S. (1990). The ABCs of label design. Visitor studies: Theory, research, and practice, 2, 115-129.

Bloomberg Connects (2014). Bloomberg philanthropies expands and rebrands global engagement program. Retrieved the Bloomberg Philanthropies website May 2015 from

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (2000). How people learn: Mind, brain, experience and school, expanded edition. DC: National Academy Press.

Carvalho, L. (forthcoming, 2015). The O in MONA: Reshaping museum spaces. In L. Carvalho, P. Goodyear & de Laat, M. (Eds.), Place-based spaces for networked learning. New York: Routledge.

Carvalho, L., & Goodyear, P. (2014). The architecture of productive learning networks. New York: Routledge.

Chianese, A., Marulli, F., Moscato, V., & Piccialli, F. (2013). SmARTweet: A Location-Based Smart Application for Exhibits and Museums (pp. 408–415). Presented at the 2013 International Conference on Signal-Image Technology & Internet-Based Systems (SITIS), IEEE.

Cooper Hewitt (2015) The new Cooper Hewitt experience. Retrieved May 2015 from

DeWitt, J., & Storksdieck, M. (2008). A short review of school field trips: Key findings from the past and implications for the future. Visitor Studies, 11(2), 181–197. Retrieved from

Falk, J. H., & Dierking, L. D. (2012). Museum Experience Revisited. Left Coast Press.

Harvey, A. (2014). Creating Learning Experiences through Interactive Devices. Journal of Museum Education, 39(2), 207–215.

Hou, H. T., Wu, S. Y., Lin, P. C., Sung, Y. T., & Lin, J. W. (2014). A blended mobile learning environment for museum learning. Educational Technology, 17(2), 207-218.

Hsi, S., & Fait, H. (2005). RFID enhances visitors’ museum experience at the Exploratorium. Communications of the ACM, 48(9), 60.

Jeanneret, Y., Depoux, A., Luckerhoff, J., Vitalbo, V., & Jacobi, D. (2010). Written signage and reading practices of the public in a major fine arts museum. Museum Management and Curatorship, 25(1), 53–67.

Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., & Freeman, A. (2015). NMC Horizon Report: 2015 Museum Edition (pp. 1–56). Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

Kelly, L. (2007). Visitors and learners: Adult museum visitors’ learning identities. Presented at the ICOM-CECA Conference. Retrieved from

Laursen, D. (2013). Balancing accessibility and familiarity: offering digital media loans at the museum front desk. Museum Management and Curatorship, 28(5), 508–526.

Lightwell (2013). First peoples digital labels: Museum Victoria. Retrieved April 2015 from

Linge, N., Booth, K., & Parsons, D. (forthcoming 2015). Practicalities of developing and deploying a handheld multimedia guide for museum visitors. In L. Carvalho, P. Goodyear & de Laat, M. (Eds.), Place-based spaces for networked learning. New York: Routledge.

McManus, P. M. (1989). Oh, yes, they do: How museum visitors read labels and interact with exhibit texts. Curator: the Museum Journal, 32(3), 174–189.

Screven, C. G. (1992). Motivating visitors to read labels. ILVS Review: a Journal of Visitor Behavior, 2(2), 183-210.

Serrell, B. (1996). Exhibit labels: An interpretive approach. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Stone, D. (2015) Google optimises Australian culture. Retreived from ArtsHub May 2015

Vavoula, G., Sharples, M., Rudman, P., Meek, J., & Lonsdale, P. (2009). Myartspace: Design and evaluation of support for learning with multimedia phones between classrooms and museums. Computers & Education, 53(2), 286–299.

Winter, M., Gorman, M.J., Brunswick, I., Browne, D., Williams, D. and Kidney, F. (2015). Fail Better: Lessons Learned from a Formative Evaluation of Social Object Labels. 8th International Workshop on Personalized Access to Cultural Heritage, PATCH @ IUI 2015, Atlanta, USA. Retrieved May 2015 from



  1. […] defined digital exhibit labels and discussed the implications of existing and proposed examples (Digital Exhibit Labels – Balancing the Opportunities and Challenges). The review highlighted the ability of current technology to deliver tools whose scope is limited […]

  2. […] Balancing Opportunities and Challenges – an introduction to the study and case examples, starting with technology that is a substitution for conventional labels and advancing to tools that innovate the museum experience. This post also includes an incredibly useful checklist of challenges to be considered when developing digital labels. […]

  3. […] defined digital exhibit labels and discussed the implications of existing and proposed examples (Digital Exhibit Labels – Balancing the Opportunities and Challenges). The review highlighted the ability of current technology to deliver tools whose scope is limited […]

  4. […] defined digital exhibit labels and discussed the implications of existing and proposed examples (Digital Exhibit Labels – Balancing the Opportunities and Challenges). The review highlighted the ability of current technology to deliver tools whose scope is limited […]

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