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Excellence in Label Writing-Awards

Category: Alliance Blog
Image of an aquarium and a text label to its left on a brightly painted green wall

Woman stands in front of a National Park Service sign wearing a multi-colored scarf.
Elizabeth Wessells, University of Washington, Museology Class of 2017

Each year during the Marketplace of Ideas at the AAM Annual Meeting, professionals from every corner of the field gather to share ideas and celebrate the year’s best in exhibition label writing. The forum for their conversations is a display showcasing the honorees for the Excellence in Exhibition Label Writing Competition presented by AAM’s Curators Committee (CurCom) Professional Network.

2017 marks the fifth year the University of Washington’s Museology program has partnered with CurCom to organize the Excellence in Exhibition Label Writing Competition. With support from CurCom, one UW Museology student serves as project manager for the national competition—issuing the call for entries, processing the submissions and facilitating juror deliberations, and presenting the winning labels at the annual conference. Elizabeth Wessells served as the 2017 student project manager, with the support of John Russick, Vice President for Interpretation and Education at the Chicago History Museum and a member of CurCom.

The internationally-visible competition honors the enthusiastic label writers and professionals who often go unacknowledged and provides a singular opportunity for a UW student to gain firsthand project management experience. For more information and to view the submission guidelines, please visit the competition webpage.


Image of the label

Animaris Adulari

Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen

Writer and editor:
Pearl Tesler, writer
Donna Linden, editor

Target audience:
General audience, with a focus on arts-oriented visitors and the maker community

Praise from the Jurors:
Seeing strandbeests at rest in a museum gallery is a far cry from seeing them in motion on a beach. But this label conjures images of the beest moving across the sand. The language helps turn a static object into a creature, and sections of PVC pipe into bones. The label writing in this exhibit also conveys the singular focus (madness?) of the artist’s relationship with his beests. -Tamara Schwarz

Statement from the Authors:
For artist Theo Jansen, strandbeests are not mere machines but life forms engaged in a desperate struggle for survival. I carried this spirit into the labels, discussing strandbeest evolution, adaptations, and survival tactics as if they actually were (or had been) alive, using the tone and language typical of displays of biological specimens in a traditional natural history museum. With personification and vivid action verbs, I sought to solicit in visitors the same sympathetic joy and sorrow that their creator feels for these vulnerable creatures as they confront the drama—and often, the tragedy—of life on the beach.

Animaris Adulari on display in the Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen exhibition at the Exploratorium

Animaris Adulari

Drowning is a real danger for strandbeests, living as they do by the seashore.

Wagging its nose here and there, Adulari samples its surroundings in an effort to detect incoming surf. If nerves in its nose detect water, Adulari reverses direction, heading for higher—and safer—ground.

Sand, too, can cause problems for strandbeests—it jams into their joints and they grind to a halt. Adulari is the first beest to evolve sweat glands, which exude water under pressure to flush sand from sensitive spots.

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Image of label

Gestures of Acknowledgement

Cultural Expressions

Writers and editors:
Toni Wynn, writer and editor
Joanne Hyppolite, writer
Elaine Nichols, writer
Robert Selim, editor

Target audience:
General audience, age 12 and up

Praise from the Jurors:
I thought the language was accessible and aptly described a cultural gesture without being too heavy handed. It described a practice succinctly and with a bit of flair. I could hear someone saying the title: I see you. -Joy Bivins

Statement from the Authors:
A primary goal was to make the language and terms used widely accessible to an English-speaking audience, while capturing some of the idiomatic expressions that are part of black cultures and often known only by members of those cultures. We strove to showcase the “everyday-ness” of the culture and spent quite a bit of time discussing among each other what that meant and most of all listening to where insider and outsider voices and perspectives sometimes clashed. We believe we achieved these goals.

Gestures of Acknowledgement label shown on display in the Cultural Expressions exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture


I see you.

In many cultures, tilting the head down with just enough movement shows respect. (To be more formal, voice your greeting when you nod.) But the up nod, the grip, and giving dap are African American greetings, usually male. The up nod lets the other person know you see them and may not want or be able to say something. The grip acknowledges a close connection. Giving dap, a sign of respect, can also substitute for hello.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Green Moray

¡Viva Baja! Life on the Edge

Writers and editors:
Roxane Buck-Ezcurra, writer
Raúl Nava, exhibit developer/editor
Melissa Snyder, editor

Target audience:
General audience, English and Spanish speakers

Praise from the Jurors:
Brevity with vivid details and action: a masterful animal ID. – Tamara Schwarz

First of all, we usually say, a label should be clear and concise, and it should tell a good story. Once you’ve mastered those tasks, as this writer has, you can sweat other details. Here the beauty and energy of the language itself struck me. Read the second sentence aloud: a deeply satisfying experience. – Adam Tessier

Statement from the Authors:
We adopted a conversational tone to convey natural history content and complex conservation information for our general audience. As with all Aquarium exhibitions, we wanted our labels to be accessible to Spanish-speaking visitors, especially our local Latino community. Our exhibition topic made that goal even more pressing. To accommodate full Spanish translation, we wrote brief labels—most just three or four lines at 50 characters for each language. Writing to these tight specs called for concise bites and snappy verbs. We mined lists of words, phrases and images generated in brainstorms to depict the wonder and fragility of Baja’s unique ecosystems.

Green Moray label shown on display in the ¡Viva Baja! Life on the Edge exhibition at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Green moray

Gymnothorax sp.

Those jaws open to breathe and bite

Tucked inside a crevice, a moray eel peeks out, baring its pointy teeth. By day, it stays put, opening and closing its mouth to breathe, then slips out at night to snap up fishes and crabs on the reef.

Esas mandíbulas se abren para respirar y morder

Resguardada dentro de una grieta, una morena se asoma dejando al descubierto sus puntiagudos dientes. Durante el día permanece quieta abriendo y cerrando la boca para respirar. Después se  desliza durante la noche para atrapar peces y cangrejos en el arrecife.

The Science Museum of Minnesota

A turkey, a pig, and a sheep caught this charlatan

Weighing the Evidence

Writers and editors:
John Gordon, writer
Liza Pryor, editor
Carolina Valencia, Spanish translation

Target audience:
Families, with a special focus on teens and seniors.

Praise from the Jurors:
In 60 words, this label tells a great story, full of drama and intrigue. It draws a through-line of deceptive medical treatments past and present and prompts the reader to think critically about such claims. – Tamara Schwarz

Statement from the Authors:
In Weighing the Evidence, we aimed to present the serious topic of making evidence-based healthcare decisions in a fun, approachable way. Many of the older objects in the show are, to modern sensibilities, a little silly, and we wanted the copy to fit with that—some of it is pretty tongue-in-cheek—while still presenting evidence in a straightforward way and maintaining sensitivity to the fact that healthcare decisions are very personal choices. Adding to that a fairly hard wordcount limit to accommodate Spanish translations on the labels, Weighing the Evidence was a challenging (but very fun) exhibit to write.

A turkey, a pig, and a sheep caught this charlatan label shown on display in the Weighing the Evidence exhibition at the Science Museum of Minnesota

A turkey,
a pig, and a sheep
caught this charlatan

Ruth Drown was a con artist, and radionics was her hustle. Patients suffered under her care until 1963, when a worried mother brought Drown blood samples from her three sick children. Drown used radionics to diagnose the children with chickenpox and mumps. But the blood samples had actually come from three barnyard animals. And the “mother” was an undercover agent.

Un pavo, un cerdo y una oveja pusieron al descubiertoa esta charlatana

Ruth Drown utilizaba la radiónica para estafar. Los pacientes sufrieron bajo su cuidado hasta que en1963, una madre preocupada le trajo muestras de sangre de sus tres hijos que estaban enfermos. Drown utilizó la radiónica para diagnosticar a los niños con varicela y paperas. Las muestras de sangre, sin embargo, provenían en realidad de tres animales de la granja. Y la “mamá” era un agente encubierto.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Writers and editors:
Jessie MacLeod, writer
Susan Schoelwer, editor
Carol Cadou, editor
Hannah Freece, editor

Target audience:
Adults, families, school groups

Praise from the Jurors:
There is a lot of information in this label. I appreciated the use of the primary source and the attempt to name the enslaved people who might have served this guest. It does a good job of using the source material to elaborate on this man’s experience at Mount Vernon and accomplishes the goal of humanizing the enslaved. – Joy Bivins

Statement from the Authors:
Our label-writing approach was rooted in careful and creative analysis of documentary evidence and historical artifacts. We aimed for sensitivity and honesty, taking great care to use language that elevated the humanity of the enslaved, while also presenting the stark reality of bondage. The process was collaborative: focus groups with descendants, educators, and supporters of a local black history museum proved invaluable.

A Guest for Coffee label shown on display in the Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon exhibition at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Reading Between the Lines
A Guest for Coffee

After retiring from the presidency, George Washington hosted more than 650 overnight stays in one year. Visitors meant extra duties for enslaved cooks, waiters, housemaids, and grooms.

English architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe visited in July 1796. His diary entries suggest the many tasks the estate’s enslaved workers performed.

“Having alighted, I sent in my letter of introduction and walked into the portico next to the river.”

Though not an invited guest, Latrobe brought a letter of introduction from George Washington’s nephew Bushrod. He probably handed it to the butler, Frank Lee.

“Dinner was served up about 1/2 after three.”

Enslaved cooks Hercules and Lucy prepared the meal. Frank Lee, along with waiters Marcus and Christopher Sheels, served the family and guests at the table.

“Coffee was brought, about 6 o’clock.”

Latrobe made several sketches of the Washingtons enjoying coffee on the piazza. One shows an enslaved man, possibly Frank Lee, standing behind the table (left). This figure is missing from Latrobe’s final watercolor of the scene (right).

“We soon after retired to bed.”

A housemaid, possibly Caroline Branham or Charlotte, prepared Latrobe’s room, ensuring the bed had fresh linens, filling a jug with clean water for washing, and if needed, emptying his chamber pot the next morning.

“…the horses came to the door.”

Cyrus or Wilson, Mount Vernon’s grooms, likely cared for Latrobe’s horses, boarding them in the stable overnight and bringing them back to the house for his departure.

Chicago Academy of Sciences/Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

Weather to Climate: Our Changing World

Writers and editors:
Paola Bucciol, writer
Steve Sullivan, writer
Alvaro Ramos, editor
Molly Woloszyn, editor
Jim Angel, editor
Claire Howick, editor

Target audience:
Children and young families

Praise from the Jurors:
Simply brilliant, and brilliantly simple, to explain the difference between weather and climate in terms of clothing! – Tamara Schwarz

Statement from the Authors:
One key goal was to make sure visitors understood the difference between weather and climate. Researching the topics, collaborating with team members, testing scripts with our visitors were all part of our process, as well as creating outlines and revising when needed. It was important for the exhibit to be accessible to a wide range of audiences.

What Are You Wearing Today label shown on display in the Weather to Climate: Our Changing World exhibition at the Chicago Academy of Sciences/Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum


Your outfit reflects the weather at the moment.

Your wardrobe reflects the climate where you live.

Detroit Institute of Arts

Bitter|Sweet: Coffee, Tea and Chocolate

Writers and editors:
Swarupa Anila, writer
Melanie Parker, writer
Dr. Yao-Fen You, writer
Judith Ruskin, editor

Target audience:
General audience, particularly intergenerational groups who are seeking a social experience

Praise from the Jurors:
This short, brilliant text makes space for us to reflect. But it gives us the freedom to shape that reflection ourselves, on our own terms, by proposing themes of enduring relevance: adaptation, transformation, power, subjugation, identity, geography. In the hands of a lesser writer, the effect here would be pedantry. Instead, piles of broad, heavy-hitting statements accrue force— until, at the last moment, we’re brought back to size with that most human of words: “perhaps.” Perhaps there isn’t anything simple about coffee, etc. And certainly, despite appearances, there’s nothing simple about this text at all. The World in a Cup gives us the world in a label. – Adam Tessier

Beautifully executed label that offers a real glimpse into the ideas/ themes that comprised the exhibition. Succint and to the point. – Joy Bivins

Statement from the Authors:
In Bitter|Sweet: Coffee, Tea and Chocolate, we invited visitors to explore decorative objects related to these drinks through the duality of the “bitter” and “sweet” histories that surround them. The goal was for visitors to look more closely at the artworks, and connect them with their own experiences with coffee, tea, and chocolate.

We wrote the exhibition text to transition from moments of contemplation to moments that are more lighthearted. Because the exhibition invited social interaction through hands-on and multisensory experiences, we wanted the labels to have a conversational tone and be easy to read and discuss aloud.

The World in a Cup label shown on display in the Bitter|Sweet: Coffee, Tea and Chocolate exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts


Every cup of coffee, tea, and chocolate tells a story.

A global story…both bitter and sweet,

of vessels adapted and transformed,

of economic systems built on power and subjugation,

of identity, both self-defined and imposed,

of traditions shared across time and place.

Perhaps there has never been anything simple about a cup of coffee, tea, or chocolate.


The Design Minds, Inc. writing for Fort Scott National Historic Site

The Fight Over Freedom!

Writers and editors:
Michael Lesperance
Michael Lenahan

Target audience:
General audience, ranging from families and tourists to dedicated Civil War historians and experts

Praise from the Jurors:
There is a level of humanity in this label that I connect to. There is good balance struck between the quote and the interpretive text—creating a good visual. The impact statement at the end adds weight to the subject matter. – Joy Bivins

Statement from the Authors:
The label writing process followed the understanding that nobody—least of all, the label writers—could express the story as well as those who witnessed, lived, and debated it. Interpretive writing supports voices from primary sources and, when necessary due to a lack of source material, composite characters express individual perspectives and motivations of a divided country. Rigorous research and vetting—including a historian’s roundtable organized for the project—ensured accuracy in all label copy in telling a story that remains tumultuous even today.

The ongoing refugee crises in the Middle East and Africa make the included exhibit section especially relevant to today’s visitors.

The Generosity of Strangers label shown on display in the Fight Over Freedom! exhibition at the Fort Scott National Historic Site


The number of refugees pouring into Kansas overwhelmed government supplies of food, medicine, and clothing. Fort Scott’s residents
responded to appeals for help by holding charity dances, donating food and clothing, providing odd jobs, and even taking in abandoned babies.

“The wagons were loaded with a motley crew of refugees of every grade, sex, and condition and suffering from almost every imaginable disease.
We hope and expect that they will receive every attention from a generous public.” —Fort Scott Bulletin, August 22, 1864

What would you donate to help people in need? At a time when most people owned few articles of clothing, giving away anything would be a major sacrifice.

Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History


Writer and editor:
Annie Holdren

Target audience:
Adult and teen tourists and locals; school groups

Praise from the Jurors:
I wasn’t expecting much of a label titled “Granitic Rock,” but suddenly I was caught up in a poetic rendition of the slow yet immense drama of the rock cycle. – Tamara Schwarz

Statement from the Authors:
Labels in the geology exhibition had to address complicated geological processes while quickly letting visitors know that the information would be relevant to their explorations along the coast. Both concept and object labels direct readers to locations where they might find in place the specimens described and displayed (e.g, the Franciscan Formation, Big Sur jade, garnet sands). For these, museum docents particularly appreciate having an exhibition that addresses the questions they frequently had been asked. Labels accompanying hands-on interactions refer to the most basic concepts, and prompt questions that might engage a user with the rest of the exhibition.

Two Blocks Down from Here label shown on display in the Local exhibition at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History

Two Blocks Down from Here
Granitic rocks form the shoreline of Pacific Grove

These rocks were born in magma chambers, deep below the Earth’s surface. They cooled from rock melted during the Farallon Plate subduction.

The San Andreas fault transported them here from the south end of the Sierras. As the volcanic mountains above them eroded away, the granitic rocks were uplifted to the surface.

Where waves can reach them, the granitic rocks are pounded and eroded. They break into pieces. Boulders break down into cobbles. Washed ashore again and again, cobbles break down into gravels. Waves break apart and separate minerals. Sand grains. The waves roll them back and forth. Soft feldspars and biotite wash away. Quartz remains.

About the Author

Lizzy Wessells is part of the University of Washington’s Museology Class of 2017. She is interested in new forms of collections engagement and management, especially with the National Park Service. Her master’s thesis focuses on successful cases of international repatriation of human remains and cultural objects between U.S. museums and First Nations in Canada.

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