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Lesson Three: Artifact Labeling

By: Leah Judd

Leah Judd

Education Collaborator

Leah Judd has a passion for teaching Social Studies.  Working in Sechelt, BC, Leah has been lucky to work with students who embrace inquiry learning and created locker museum displays during the pandemic to share their curated stories with the school community.  Leah shares her enthusiasm for Social Studies as editor of Salon, an online quarterly publication from the Social Studies Educators Network of Canada @ssencressc

Suggested Subject Areas

Social Studies
History
Law

Grade Level

Adaptable across 9-12 / Sec I-V

Timing

60-75 minutes

Overview

Using visual thinking strategies to consider different methods of adding information to museum displays, students will begin writing labels for their chosen artifacts. This lesson allows for time for students to write and edit together. Depending on classroom technology available, students could print out labels or handwrite. Consistency for labels for the group display will be important for keeping the display cohesive for visitors.

Lesson Outline 

Hook

Begin this lesson by showing the image below (or another relevant image of your choice) and by using the visual thinking strategies to prompt reflection about artifacts and their labels. The teacher could show both the artifact and the label at the same time, or show each separately—whatever works best for your group.

Resurrection by Fransje Povel-Speleers, Freedom Museum, Netherlands. Photo by Leah Judd.
Resurrection label, Freedom Museum, Netherlands. Photo by Leah Judd.

The text on the label reads as follows:

RESURRECTION

Monument in honour of the soldiers who died in the Battle of Arnhem in 1944 and were buried in the Airborne Cemetery of Oosterbeek.

In this clay tableau the soldiers emerge out of their graves,
young and strong as they once were,
to celebrate the Liberation for which they lost their lives.

Lest We forget

Artist: Fransje Povel-Speleers

Project the image and invite students to spend some time (about a minute or so) looking at it.Then, consider and discuss the questions associated with visual thinking strategies, such as:

As follow-up questions, invite students to consider the following, either in small groups or as a class:

Introduction to Label Writing
What makes a great label?

The teacher should now lead a conversation to determine a set of guidelines for writing clear and helpful artifact labels. A great museum label creates a connection between the artifact, its context, the theme of the display/exhibit, and the viewer.

As an example, the teacher could ask students to co-create a label for a typewriter. What information would need to be included? It would be helpful, for example, to contextualize that the typewriter is a predecessor to desktop computers, laptops, and printers. What if it was specifically the typewriter used to write out the UDHR? A great label might identify that the typewriter could only produce one copy of a document at a time—so if nine (9) committee members needed copies of the UDHR, and in several different languages!, the typist working on that task via typewriter would need a considerable amount of time. The label might also include information about who were typical typists during this era—was it a job for men or women?

Anna Faherty, writing for the website Museum Next, provides great ideas and examples of thought provoking museum labels that take museum displays beyond a collection of facts.

The New York Times also has an interesting article about how museum labels can go beyond the boring recitation of who, what, when, and where.

Depending on the teacher and the group, the information from these articles could be summarized for students, students could choose one of the two articles to read and then come back to the larger group or fill a Jamboard or Padlet with key takeaways, or the whole class could read the articles together and engage in a conversation about them.

What should we avoid?

The teacher should show the following museum display image to students and read the label aloud.

Medals of Lester B. Pearson. Ashton Armoury Museum in Victoria, BC. Photo by Leah Judd.

The text on the label reads as follows (all errors in capitalization, punctuation, wording, etc, are as they appear in the original text) :

MEDALS OF
LESTER B. PEARSON

Founding Father of U.N. “Peacekeeping”

In march 1915 Pearson started drilling with the Officers’ Training Corps in the University of Toronto, and in April he enlisted, becoming Private #1059 in the Canadian Army Medical Corps heading Macedonia, not France.

In 1917 Pearson was shipped to England out of the medical corps, and destined for a commission as a lieutenant. The fledgling officer trained at Oxford University, under the improbably guidance of Robert Graves, the poet. When he graduated, an infantry officer, he applied for assignment to the Royal Flying Corps.

A spell of flying training followed. But fate, this time in the form of a London Transport bus, intervened. Pearson revived in hospital only to be invalided home, in the spring of 1918. The rest of the war was spent teaching aerial navigation in Toronto.

Discuss with students what is and isn’t working well in the label above. What do the students know about Pearson after reading it? About the medals themselves, as per the display and its title? Which solder in the photo is Pearson? Invite students to make suggestions for how this label could be improved.

Label Writing Practice

Using a typical classroom object (a whiteboard brush, an apple, a pair of scissors, a stapler), ask students to write a quick description of that object as an artifact (2-3 minutes). Ask them to keep in mind what makes a strong label, and to imagine their audience might not know what the object is or what its purpose is in the classroom setting.

Ask students to assemble with their project groups and to share their labels. Invite them to discuss what’s working and not working in the labels written by their group members.

Group Work

If there is time at the end of the period, students should stay in their groups to work together on honing their artifact list down to 8-12 images and objects, and to begin drafting labels for those artifacts. Students should divide their work so that each student is responsible for drafting some of the labels. It is important that groups have a collaborative idea of how to write the labels, what the tone of the writing will be, and what will make a strong label in their display.

This writing can be done on recipe cards, in a Google Doc, on Canva, etc.

As differentiation, students could also opt to:

Optional Extension

Depending on class time and student interest, the teacher could also show the following examples and discuss how labels can become part of the display, not just about the display.

Droog30, Design or Non-Design. Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam. Photo by Leah Judd.
A few degrees more by Richard Gerstl. Leopold Museum, Vienna, Austria. Photo by Leah Judd. This piece is intended to raise awareness of climate change via art and museum labels.