Label, Labels, Everywhere... But What is the Story Behind Them?

I will be focusing only on object labels in this blog, but as a general and quite obvious statement, all must agree that museums are loaded down with labels. Exhibition labels, object labels, labels that give directions to cafés, restrooms, libraries, etc. Altogether the experience can lead to a sensory overload, the truth is labels are the glue that hold exhibitions together. And a lot goes in to them.

One would think that working for a museum that deals with the contemporary art field, it wouldn’t be difficult to track down artist information. Artists who have created work in the last four decades can surely be tracked down for information, right? Yes, RAM keeps thorough records in our bio files of artists represented in our permanent collection, but with a collection growing as fast as ours is (5,000 plus works in the last ten years), it can be a challenge to find the information we need.  Let’s look at one of RAM’s branded labels.

Artist name: Should be simple, right?  Not always. When a work comes to RAM we always have a name attached to it, but we do further research to make sure the name is spelled and listed correctly. Some artists use their middle initial, some work under a nickname or alias, and others have gotten married or divorced - and with that changed their name.

Nationality, Birth Year: RAM focuses primarily on American artists, but with our growing collection more foreign artists are entering our collection. Many of these foreign artists are working in the US, so our labels read like this:

Pavel Novak
Czech/Active America, birth year – (the open dash indicates the artist is still living)

In Mr. Novak’s case, he informed me that he recently achieved US citizenship. If I am aware of this fact, the label will read (as in Mr. Novak’s case):

Pavel Novak
American, b. Czech Republic, birth year –

Artists are very particular about their nationality and RAM does everything possible to give the public their correct information.

Another situation RAM runs into is not being able to find any information at all about an artist. This is more frequently found with works from our Works Progress Administration collection and other works from the early to mid-twentieth century. Federal Government data about the WPA is helpful, but doesn’t always have what we need. Here is an example of how we list labels in this situation

Artist Name
American/Active 1930s-1940s

Always remember that with a little simple arithmetic, you can figure out how old the artist is today and how old s/he was when they made the work.

Title, Date: I don’t even know if I should start on this one - Uggghhh! While some artists keep careful records of their works, some do not. In fact, some artists leave the naming of works up to dealers or collectors. This can make research incredibly difficult, especially if the artist is deceased. In addition, we can send an artist an image of their work to verify missing information, only to have them not be certain about title and date. If this is the case, the label will read:

Untitled, ca. 1970-1975 (The abbreviation “ca.” stands for circa, the Latin term for around or about.)

Sometimes a work is exhibited under different titles during its life before coming to RAM.  In this case, the label will read:

Title (also known as ALTERNATIVE TITLE), date

Medium: RAM does not list process on our labels, such as wheel-thrown earthenware, but we make every effort to include which media is represented in the work, including unseen media (such as the structure.) The most difficult to list are prints and photographs. 

Prints are usually numbered, but sometimes not. We include this information at the end of the medium line:

Aquatint and color etching, 3/50 or

Aquatint and color etching, Artist’s Proof or

Aquatint and color etching, uneditioned

We must also ensure that the correct type of print is included, and there are many different types, such as etching, color etching, woodcut, monoprint, monotype, aquatint, drypoint, silverpoint, engraving, lithograph, etc. Some staff have knowledge of these techniques and can properly identify which is which, ensuring that our listed medium is correct.

Photography is a challenge, in terms of medium. There is an explosion of development in this field, and all museums are running to keep up with the technical developments. Photography is not considered by RAM to be an acceptable medium. Specifically, our labels will list what type of photography - silver gelatin print, Type-C color print, digital inkjet print, etc.

Credit Line: This is fairly easy, but incredibly important. A donor wants to be recognized for their generosity and many times they donate works in memory of loved ones. Here is an example:

Other donors are simply credited with:

Racine Art Museum, Gift of DONOR or

Racine Art Museum, Promised Gift of DONOR

By listing our name first means that the work is in RAM’s permanent collection. A promised gift means that the object is in RAM’s physical care but the donor wishes to formally donate it at a later date. The work is still RAM’s collection property.

We must also be careful about corporate donations and be sure to follow their branding. We have had cases where corporate donors changed their branding and, upon seeing a label with their former brand on it, asked that we change the credit line to reflect the brand they are currently using. 

Concerning RAM’s branding, we have taken great care to streamline our branding, and our logo appears on all object labels at both campuses. This helps to unify our two locations.

I hope this helps museum visitors see past the label in front of them and realize that quite a bit goes into that simple piece of paper. Happy label reading!



Dave Zaleski
Curatorial Assistant

Dave has worked as RAM’s Curatorial Assistant since 2006. He is responsible for the logistics of RAM’s exhibitions, including installation design, budgeting, contracts, loan forms, and shipping. He is an admirer of RAM’s furniture collection and enjoys working with so many talented artists from the US and abroad. Dave also is a big fan of the Golden Girls and his dog Sammy.