Wednesday, July 7, 2010

British Museum

After visiting the General Archive, I spent some time exploring the British Museum--particularly the areas dealing with the ancient cultures in Egypt, the Middle East, Greece, and Rome. Over the course of my visit, I developed a mild obsession with the signage. When I studied archaeology, I learned a bit about various ancient cultures, and a lot about the complexity of these cultures. Given this, and the difficulty in understanding a culture when all you have to do so is some of their stuff, I wanted to see how the Museum navigated this complex task to present their visitors, most of whom know very little about archaeology or ancient history, a clear picture of the significance of the collections.

I feel this applies to the work of librarians: no matter what setting we work in, we often have to create online library instruction tutorials and informational handouts, and lead library instruction sessions. All these tasks require distilling the very specialized, complex world of library information into its essence, breaking it down into manageable pieces, and presenting these pieces to patrons in such a way that even those who have never used a library before will understand.

There was some variability in the quality of the signage, with the very best belonging to objects included in the "History of the World in 100 Objects" series (for instance, the Rosetta Stone, signage shown here). The signage for Egyptian Life and Death and the objects from Sutton Hoo burial were a very close second.

The success of the signage in these three exhibits was successful for several reasons. First, the signs were large, with the text printed in a font that could be read without stepping right up to the glass. The signs for the Rosetta Stone and Sutton Hoo were made more noticeable by being black with white text, while the Egyptian sign had reproductions of images from the collection to attract visitors' gazes. Second, the signs avoided almost all jargon and explained specialized terms in the rare instances these were used. Each exhibit's signage also included elements that would help readers understand the context and significance of the collections. In the Egyptian gallery, maps were included for context, and key points were repeated on multiple signs. For the Sutton Hoo collection, there were many images reconstructing the someowhat corroded and decayed objects' original appearance and arrangement in the burial. My favorite, though, was the way the "100 objects" signs, like that for the Rosetta Stone, included a short list of contemporary Museum items from other regions for context.

I think several of these techniques can be adopted for signs, handouts, and presentations in the library: avoiding technical language is important if librarians want to avoid driving away the "uninitiated." Also, using eye-catching colors or images is important--signs and handouts are only useful if patrons know they're there! Repetition of main points is a good way to ensure those main points stay with patrons, as is presenting new information in context. Simple things, but doing them well has the potential to put a library in the same league as the British Museum.

Now if only every library could have a lamassu.


  1. Great observations on signage! Check your lamassu link.

  2. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
    The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.