I’ve been brushing up on a few museum and zoo reviews for posting and it occurs to me that often my biggest complaint with an exhibition is a lack of good signs. I’m not talking here about absolute basics (“This is a Brachiosaurus” – though even some places seem to eschew this minimalist approach) but pretty much anything more detailed than that – be it the age and geographical origin of the organism or a complete display about the phylogeny of the clade and it’s more interesting anatomical features.

A great many places of supposed public interest and education seem to rather lack that second aspect because of a lack of signs. Sure it’s educational to stand in front of a hall of bones or a paddock full of antelope, but signs add so much more. It is, let’s face it, uneconomical to have people standing around answering questions and interfering with people’s days (and indeed these can be intrusive and annoying) and a good sign can communicate lots of information without being dull or taking up a lot of space.

The obvious point to make might be that not many people *want* to read the signs, but this is misleading. I can’t imagine anyone buys a newspaper and reads it cover to cover – some people want the sport, some the stock indexes, other the comments, or the lifestyle section and so on. Everyone will likely get something different from the paper in differing combinations and amounts. If you don’t *want* to read a sign, then fine, don’t. But even if it’s a minority, I’m sure that lots of people *do* want to learn more about what they are looking at.

At the very least it’s almost criminal in a zoo or museum not to tell you the name of the species you are looking at. The one thing you hear more than anything else in these places is a kid asking a parent “What’s that?” and without a sign to hand often there’s no obvious answer forthcoming (or a wrong one – I one, honestly and truly, saw someone call a giraffe a ‘zebra’ once). Kids who get their questions answered are going to learn something and might keep up that interest / trait to ask questions. Those that don’t, will not. Even if they don’t take much in at the time, the name will likely be remembered and can be looked up later. And this hardly takes into account adults – plenty of people do read signs and want to learn more and that’s tricky without the information being provided.

There are of course some truly great signs out there, original, inventive, informative and exciting (like this dinosaur tree I have been meaning to show off – a complete dinosaur phylogeny with little models to represent the various clades). But signs need not be huge or dramatic or expensive to be informative. Something simple to say the same of a species, which family or higher group it belongs to, how big it got, when and where it lived and what it ate need not take up more than 6 inches of wall or display space and actually tells you quite a bit.

I really think there is almost no excuse for this kind of sign not appearing next to pretty much every single display – it’s simple and informative and unambiguous and is hardly likely to go out of date (unlike say the average sign of dinosaur behaviour, or the names of all the meerkats in the enclosure) making it cheap and easy to install. These should be used in conjunction with bigger displays and signs with greater depth, but something small and unobtrusive that will both no-one while informing many, and is quick to scan and digest should surely be essential for just about anywhere that wants to inform its audience.

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18 Responses to “Signs”

  1. 1 sterndavidi 27/11/2009 at 10:48 am

    Without detailed signs the museum can sell a guidebook to those who are interested…

    • 2 David Hone 27/11/2009 at 11:40 am

      Surely there is a place for both? Even small museums have hundreds if not tens of thousands of specimens on display – that hardly gets covered by guidebooks. I’ve never seen a guidebook yet that covers even a fraction of this kind of information in any case – they deal mostly with lots of pretty pictures of things you are already looking at and then some text about how great they are, not actually describing the work the do and what the exhibits are about.

  2. 3 Nick Gardner 27/11/2009 at 10:57 am

    That dinosaur tree display you posted an image of, are there any high res versions anywhere that show the whole thing?


    • 4 David Hone 27/11/2009 at 11:41 am

      Sorry not that I know of (since the museum does not normally allow photos). It was high up on the wall of a dark room and followed the curve of the wall so was impossible to photograph well. It’s also huge – those little white squares below it are casts of various Archaeopteryx specimens so the ‘sign’ is about 12 m by 5!

  3. 5 mattvr 27/11/2009 at 7:46 pm

    To be fair, you can still be an intelligent person and call a Giraffe a Zebra if you’re a sleep deprived parent.
    (so signs are great!)

  4. 6 Caroline Pandolfini 27/11/2009 at 11:20 pm

    Its true that without detailed signs, museum can sell a guidebook to those who are interested. I am a college sophomore with a dual major in Physics and Mathematics @ University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. By the way, i came across these excellentphysics flashcards. Its also a great initiative by the FunnelBrain team. Amazing!!!

    • 7 David Hone 28/11/2009 at 9:12 am

      Yep, that looks good. There are a great many ways of doing signs from the smallest card with jsut a name and date on it to a 50 ft billboard packed with 10 000 words of text and while these two extremes are probably of very limited value, I can’t help but thing that on average a bit more, or even a lot more small signs in most museums would go a long way.

  5. 8 Kerstin Kaehler 30/12/2009 at 4:45 pm

    Signs can be a great help – however, in my travels in China and some neighboring countries I find that a sign by an excavation site telling me what I already see is not what I want: “the foundation is x m long and y m wide with walls of xx thickness” leaves out what I REALLY want the museum – or whoever writes the signs – to tell me: what do the measurements tell me about the exhibit? That’s the part that I as a visitor usually don’t know too much about and would appreciate some help with.
    To be fair, bad or non-informative signs can be found anywhere, also in small museusm in my native Germany, but since I live in China now this is where I travel and get annoyed by bad signs…
    …sometimes I wonder if there is simply a reluctance by scientists to state anything other than the absolutely quantifiable facts? Why, though? If it were made clear that “the following are tentative conclusions only” or sth along those lines then surely any content later disproved or still being hotly debated would not hurt the museum’s reputation. AND from my – aka the visitor’s – point of view, it would make such a difference and help battle the prejudice that museum’s are musty and uncool (which they are SO not).
    Sorry for the rambling – and not even confining myself to archosaurs…:)

    • 9 David Hone 30/12/2009 at 5:31 pm

      Ah yes, the great ‘dimensions’ signs of China. Absolutely everywhere and containing no information beyond the dimensions of every part of the building or room and how great it is they built them that size!

      In my experience the problem lies not with the scientists but the people setting up the exhibits. We usually want more information out there, but there seems to be this idea that people don’t or won’t read them when all my experience suggests the opposite. We want to communicate our ideas and research to the public but are (in my experience / told by colleagues) often prevented from doing so. It’s less an issue about what the signs contain than just they want to minimise them, hence little information gets in.

      Thanks for the comment, and feel free to ramble and talk about things beyond archosaurs!

  6. 10 Kerstin Kaehler 30/12/2009 at 6:50 pm

    Well, if the scientists are on “my” side, it seems that I need to continue my personal crusade to leave the very same comment in each and every museum with bad signs that I visit: “please let ME decide how much information I want to read – trust me, I am capable of walking past a sign if I don’t want to read it.” Wish me luck. 🙂

    • 11 David Hone 31/12/2009 at 9:06 am

      That’s about the size of. It’s the one thing I bring up in almost every zoo and museum review I do and something I have brought up to many people who operate the galleries of museums. Go for it!

  7. 12 Teresa White 31/12/2009 at 2:06 am

    As someone who writes the content for our traveling exhibitions I felt so vindicated by this post that I had to share it with my general manager.

    After spending time finding as much information as I could on the exhibit pieces I wanted to share all the “sexy” little facts I could but am restricted to 80 – 200 words depending on the size of the content piece. Even the venues that we exhibit in, science centers and museums, think I’m wordy!

    (By the way, the Musings is part of my everyday reading as I start my day at work. Your post, “Lost to Science”, even inspired me to produce a new content piece for an upcoming show – even though I had to truncate it to 124 words! I thought it would be an interesting counterpoint to all the dinosaur factoids.)

    • 13 David Hone 31/12/2009 at 9:16 am

      Hi Teresa,

      Thanks for the nice words and I’m sorry to hear that I’m right! This had always been my experience of exhibits and I had hoped that more people might report better signed museums or exhibits, but it looks like things are every bit as bad as I suggested. Even so, it’s good to know that you are fighting to get better signs out there – go for it!

  8. 14 Robert A. Sloan 28/11/2011 at 5:51 pm

    Signs also eliminate the kind of weird, lengthy arguments that adults who don’t know have on the spot in front of the exhibit, usually started by a kid asking “What’s that?” The older brother is sure it’s an Apatosaurus because he shot one in a video game, Dad thinks it’s Diplodocus, Mom insists it’s really Brontosaurus because they never should’ve changed the name and they all go round and round while Grandpa calls it Sinclair.

    The signs are needed. I used to seriously annoy people as a kid because I’d read every one of the signs and get so frustrated if the sign didn’t have enough information.

  9. 15 Elizabeth Snook 29/11/2011 at 12:24 am

    Not every one can afford a guidebook. I like reading the signs, though it takes me longer to go through museums.

    The issue of what and how much information is a problem. Currently, the signage in local museums is geared to children. At least, some thought has been put into them, but adults go to museums too.

    Perhaps the museum could provide a flyer or brochure with information on useful websites and good books available in libraries, for a wide audience, adults.children, general overviews, to some more specific.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if at least some people leaving the museum, would be inspired to learn more?

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