The Exhibit Series: Put a Label on It

When organizing an exhibit, creating the labels may not be the most exciting item on the to-do list. The labels are often used to relay essential information about the item on display, such as the title, description, artist, creator, date, age, or where it’s from. Sometimes labels provide information on how the item was used, what it was for, or who is depicted in the image.

Labels are often skimmed over by the viewer.


Photo Credit: Brint Design, Periodic Table of Typefaces

How can exhibit labels be more interesting? What would make the viewer want to read the label?

  1. Less is more. A viewer does not want to spend ten minutes reading and thinking about the information in a label. The label should be short. In fact, the shorter the better (20 – 70 words). If the label has closer to 70 words, break the paragraph up into two smaller paragraphs to create the illusion of a shorter label.
  2. An easy read. Don’t use technical vocabulary that would not get across the information to the general public. The exhibit is meant to inform the general public, not stump them. It is best to use simple vocabulary and short sentences, with strong adjectives and verbs. By doing this, you are making the information accessible to a wider audience. It is also important that the label is easy on the eyes. The text should either be dark on a light background or light on a dark background, with a 70% difference in contrast between the two colours.
  3. Available in large print. The font size should be no smaller than size 12. The typeface should be sans serif or simple serif (e.g. Screen Shot 2016-10-13 at 2.18.09 PM.png or Screen Shot 2016-10-13 at 2.19.09 PM.png) and there should be no more than two fonts in the label. Proper punctuation and capitalization should be used unless it is purposefully being manipulated to get across certain information. The Smithsonian has published an online article, Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design, aimed to provide recommendations on designing an exhibit that better relays information to all audiences.
  4. Make it worth their time. Why is the label worth reading? Engage the viewer with an interesting fact or the label could have a narrative. It may also help if the text is written with an active voice instead of passive. It could also be interesting to feature a ‘curator’s choice’ item for the exhibit.
  5. Provide an activity. It is recommended to include an activity within some of the labels in an exhibit. These labels could pose a question or encourage the viewer to look more closely at the item.
  6. Just a little bit higher. Make sure that the label is located near the item. It should be at a comfortable height so that the viewer does not need to look up or bend down to read it. The centre of the label should be approximately 57 inches from the floor. If the label is positioned high or low ensure that it is correctly angled to accommodate the viewer.
  7. Don’t make it a beacon. The label should be matte or very low gloss. The viewer should not have to change angles to read the label. Ensure that labels going within an exhibit case are examined for glare prior to the final installation.

Fun fact: The American Alliance of Museums’ Curators Committee in partnership with the Museology Graduate Program at the University of Washington, Seattle, and in cooperation with the National Association for Museum Exhibition and the AAM Educational Committee holds a yearly exhibit label competition. The competition, entitled Excellence in Exhibit Writing Competition, accepts international entries.



Brint Design. Periodic Table of Typefaces. Accessed 2016, Oct 13.

Hammons, Carlyn. Training for Texas Museums. 2011, Oct 18. Five Tips for Great Exhibit Labels.mp4. Retrieved from

Majewski, Janice. Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibit Design. Smithsonian Accessibility Program. Accessed 2016, Oct 13.

Parks Canada Access Series: Design Guidelines for Media Accessibility. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, 1993.

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Coming to Alberta – Archives Week Launch


Photo Credit: Meeting of the Societe Jean-Batiste of Alberta, Provincial Archives of Alberta, Cropped Image.

Every year, during the first week of October, the Archives Society of Alberta celebrates Archives Week. Each year Archives Week has a different theme, the same theme in which the ASA calendar is based on. The ASA is excited to announce the theme, ‘Coming to Alberta’, which focuses on those who immigrated to Alberta to start their new home. People from all over the world have moved to Alberta over the last 150 years making Alberta the culturally rich and diverse province that it is.

Acting Executive Director and Archives Advisor, Meribeth Plenert, the ASA Board of Directors, and the ASA Communications Committee worked hard to organize the successful launch event held on October 1st at the Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre. Despite the heavy rainfall that evening, the event had a great turnout welcoming MLA Chris Neilson and Robert Gaetz from the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation. The event featured performances of dramatic readings of letters and oral histories from archives across Alberta. The letters and oral histories were by people who immigrated to Alberta from allover the world, which provides brief, though accurate, first hand accounts of their experiences traveling to Canada, entering Alberta, and beginning their new lives. There were six performances demonstrating varied stories, from one person who left the USA in 1909, who, with two others, built the first road between Amber Valley and Lac La Biche, to a war bride from England who travelled with 42 000 other war brides by ship from Britain to Canada after WW2. It was also fascinating to hear the story of a man and his friends starting up a successful restaurant business in Medicine Hat.

Due to generous funding by the City of Edmonton Archives, the live readings were filmed and will be made available on the ASA YouTube page. The Flood Team found the series of readings highly entertaining including shockingly humourous accounts and stories of perseverance.
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Disaster Preparedness Workshop: The Results are In!

The Disaster Preparedness workshop, offered by the Archives Society of Alberta and the Flood Advisory Programme, was held in Calgary at the Hyatt Regency from September 21st – 22nd 2016. It aimed to provide registrants with information on disaster preparedness that is not covered at traditional disaster preparedness courses and workshops.

The workshop offered a combination of presentations and hands-on activities. This included learning how to propose and write a business continuity plan for a department or organization; disaster psychology preparation and coping mechanisms; case studies exemplifying equipment offered by BELFOR Canada; and how to prepare for evacuating collections, and handle wet records.


Photo Credit: Barry Manuel of Kildoon Emergency Management, Emily Turgeon-Brunet

A big thank you to all who attended, we hope to see you in the future at other ASA events. In hopes that this workshop may assist people working in the heritage field beyond the two days it was offered, select information from the presentations has been made available on the Flood Advisory Programme’s webpage. Please click here to prepare for a disaster in your archives.

This workshop was possible due to funding and support from Alberta Culture and Tourism.

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The Exhibit Series: Boxing it Up

When developing a new exhibit space, or updating an existing exhibit space, it can be tough to find the right selection of exhibit cases and mounts. Archives staff may be looking to enhance an exhibit space with new cases that both better suit the collection and that are chemically and physically stable long-term. Sometimes it is not possible to order new cases, as it can often be less expensive to update existing cases rather than replace. Whether buying new or making changes, what are you options when displaying original archival material?

  1. Where can you buy archival grade exhibit cases?

Zone Display Cases is a Canadian company that designs and manufactures custom-made conservation grade display cases. They are made of powder-coated steel and glass and are closely inspected prior to shipping. They offer a promise that all display cases shipped are without defect. Some of their most recent projects have included creating cases for Parliament of Canada, Harvard University, The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, and Yale University.

Goppion: The Art of Case Design began as a glass making company in Milan. Over the years they began creating custom display cases to meet clients’ special needs. Their work can be seen in museums across Europe.

Glausbau Hahn is a German company that produces their glass and coated metal cases within country using resource efficient methods and materials. Their cases can be viewed throughout Europe, and, closer to home, can be seen at the Royal Ontario Museum.


Photo Credit: Modular Cases, Products, Zone Display Cases. Accessed September 2016.

  1. How can non-archival grade exhibit cases be updated?

Often unmodified exhibit cases are adopted for use because they are what is available and on-hand. These exhibit cases are sometimes painted or lacquered wood, particle board, or even mixed materials, including cork. These materials are generally not archival grade unless steps are taken to stabilize them. They will off-gas and negatively affect the items housed inside by causing embrittlement and yellowing to the paper. Completely replacing the case may not be within the budget, so what can be done?

  • If the case is lacquered wood it is recommended to place acid-free barriers like mat board or panes of glass along the shelves or platform. This is to ensure the collection items are not in direct contact with the wood.
  • If the case is coated metal and areas of the coating has worn off, it is recommended to apply a fresh coating of enamel paint to reduce the possibility of corrosion in areas with exposed metal. Allow paint to cure for two weeks before use.
  • If the case is made of particleboard, plywood or MDF it is recommended to coat it with enamel paint, and set aside to cure for two weeks before use. It is recommended to coat these types of wood products because they off gas due to adhesives within the material.
  • Cork is often used as a base material on shelves and platforms, frequently found in cases produced for schools and libraries. Cork is not archival grade and is not chemically stable. It is recommended to cover the cork board with buffered mat board, with an additional sheet of unbuffered acid-free mat board overtop. The underside of the buffered mat board should be routinely checked for discolouration. Once it begins to discolour, replace with another sheet of buffered mat board. It is recommended to put unbuffered mat board overtop of the buffered one because some archival materials react poorly to change in pH. Unbuffered mat board is inert and so is preferable if placing archival materials directly on it.

Microclimate equipment can also be installed in new or repurposed exhibit cases. Canadian company, Keepsafe Microclimate Systems, offers a variety of temperature, humidity, and oxygen moderating equipment that can be installed in cases to better protect collection material from the environment and pests.

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The Exhibit Series: Fading Out

When choosing archival records to add to a display case or exhibit space a decision must be made whether to display the original or a copy. Sometimes it is necessary to display the original because the item holds such high historic significance and making it publicly accessible is important, for example, exhibiting the Canadian Constitution. If you are considering displaying an item that could fade first determine if displaying the original is necessary or if a copy of the item would suffice.

What media and material fades or discolours more quickly when exposed to light?

  • Iron gall ink
  • Analine dye
  • Water-based inks
  • Watercolours
  • Coloured photographs
  • Cyanotypes and blueprints
  • Newsprint
  • Wood pulp based paper

This is not a comprehensive list, and there may be other media and materials that will fade quickly upon light exposure.


Photo Credit: Parker Knight

It is also important to consider the auxiliary features of the records, such as fabric ties, paper seals, and stamps; all may fade when exposed to light.


How can you minimize exposure to light if the original must be displayed and has light sensitive media or materials?

Ensure there is UV filtering film on windows and UV filtering light tubes on lights that emit UV. Ensure that the light does not exceed 75 lux. It is recommended to place curtains over windows to assist with controlling lux. Other items should not be placed in front of or partially over light susceptible items due to uneven fading caused by the shade, leaving unsightly fade marks.

It is recommended to change out exhibit material every three months so that original records are not overexposed to light.

While it is recommended to display high resolution coloured copies when possible of archival records susceptible to fading, if the item holds little to no historic significance there may not be a risk of losing important information even if the item does fade. The archives staff preparing the display should consider all options and determine if the return is greater than the risk.

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The Exhibit Series: Lighting

Lighting can have a significant impact on exhibits. It can influence the environment of the exhibit space, highlight items of importance, accent areas of the space, lead viewers from one room to another, and, most importantly, it can have a significant impact on the life of an item.

How does light negatively impact archival materials? 

The three largest contributors of degradation to archival materials are: light, heat, and oxygen. All three of these contributors play a part in causing displayed items to degrade.

Light and oxygen partner to cause photo-degradation. Photo-degradation is initiated by a photon being emitted from a light source, and being absorbed by molecules. The photon provides energy that is transferred as electrons. The electrons cause molecules to jump from a ground state (stable) to an excited state (unstable). The excited state of the molecules can cause them to spontaneously oxidize or hydrolyze. This process can be observed when photo-degradation causes archival items to yellow and become brittle, or when it causes organic dyes to fade. If lamps are set-up too closely to archival items, heat from the them can act as a catalyst for photo-degradation, causing it to occur more rapidly.

The temperature and relative humidity of collection storage spaces are often closely monitored. The lighting of exhibit areas should be monitored equally as closely to preserve the archival items on display. How can this be done? Information on light can be collected using a UV metre, an ELSEC Handheld Environmental Monitor, or a Blue Wool standard card to examine the lux and UV levels. Lux is the unit of illumination, used to measure the intensity of light in one square metre. UV or ultraviolet light is a particular wavelength that causes rapid fading of organic materials.


Photo Credit: Susanne Nilsson, Cropped

It is not recommended to use natural sunlight to illuminate an exhibit space because of the extensive damage it causes to archival items. Sunlight is too intense, emits too much heat, and has high UV levels. There should not be any windows in an exhibit space, though if there are, it is recommended to place UV filtering film on the windows and to cover the windows with blackout curtains. UV filtering film should be replaced every ten years. UV filtering light tube covers can also be purchased for fluorescent light tubes, which also emit low levels of UV.

It is recommended to display items for no more than three to four months. Archival items without coloured media can be illuminated up to 150 lux, though archival items with colour, as well as art on paper, should be illuminated up to no more than 75 lux.

Our next blog in the Exhibit Series will discuss archival materials that are particularly vulnerable to deterioration when on exhibit.

For more information on light and light damage, please visit the Northeast Document Conservation Centre.

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Tracking Acidity in Your Collection

A-D Strips are used to identify the presence of vinegar syndrome in a collection containing cellulose acetate, predominantly in reel format, though they can be used to identify negatives with vinegar syndrome.

What are they? They are made of dye-coated paper that changes colour when exposed to low pH. A-D Strips detect the presence of acetic acid, the culprit behind vinegar syndrome. Acetic acid vapour is released from degrading cellulose acetate. As the released vapour comes into contact with the A-D Strips, the strips change colour. The colour change is dependent on the concentration of acetic acid detected. Unaffected strips begin as the colour blue, and slowly migrate to blue-green, green, green-yellow, and finally to bright yellow upon exposure.

How should they be used? A-D strips can be placed in film or audio canisters, boxes, or bags. For negatives housed in boxes, it can be easier to monitor acetic acid vapours by suspending the A-D Strips along the top of the box, rather than the placing them at the bottom.
You will need: linen tape, two-sided tape, cotton string, and A-D Strips

  1. Use linen tape to adhere cotton string across an open box containing cellulose acetate negatives.
  2. Use two-sided tape to adhere A-D Strips to the string, dye-coated side facing down towards the negatives.
  3. Put the lid back on the box, and return in one week to monitor the colour change of the A-D Strips.
A-D Strips - Negatives

Image Credit: Emily Turgeon-Brunet


Please visit the Image Permanence Institute’s webpage on A-D Strips for more information:

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Cover All the Bases: Collections Insurance

It is quite common to organize insurance coverage for facilities, facility contents, staff healthy and safety, and vehicles, but unfortunately, it is less often purchased for collections of archival records. Archival collections may include items of high historical and monetary value and it is important to organize insurance coverage for these items in the event of an emergency or disaster.

Collections insurance is often not purchased for the following reasons:

  1. Too difficult to find an insurance company that will insure an archival collection
  2. Too difficult to determine the monetary value of original items
  3. Unable to secure funds to have a National Archival Appraisal Board (NAAB) certified professional appraise the collection
  4. Unsure how collections insurance can be used

Why is it important?

  1. 9150440989_b84a3d57d7_o.jpg

    Photo Credit: shakespearesmonkey

    It is recommended to insure items going on loan to other institutions in the event of the items being damaged or lost during transport, set-up or exhibition.

  2. It is also useful to have insurance for items that are frequently requested by researchers, handled by volunteers, or worked with by contractors.
  3. While insurance cannot replace original records, insurance can cover the costs of conservation treatment, rehousing, and digitization so that the records are once again accessible to staff and researchers.*

It is recommended to find an insurance broker that has worked with art, culture, and heritage institutions in the past as they may offer coverage for collections. If changing insurance brokers is not a feasible option, one may also inquire to their current insurance broker about ‘Valuable Papers Insurance’ to see if it is a good fit for their vital records or collection. This type of insurance coverage will reimburse the policyholder for the monetary value of papers if they are lost. These papers commonly include wills, trusts, or corporate charters. In order to be eligible to file a claim under this coverage, it must be proven that the papers were securely, and correctly housed (Valuable Papers Insurance, Investopedia).

*It is important to seek professional assistance to complete conservation treatment and digitization because mishandling the records may cause harm. Also, if the collection is insured the insurance company may require confirmation that the contractor hired to complete the work is a trained professional.

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South Peace Regional Archives Update

In March 2015, our archivist Leslie Gordon gave me a new project – adding new fonds descriptions to Alberta on Record. It had been several years since South Peace Regional Archives had been able to add new descriptions, so the representation of our holdings was far from being up to date.

As I began adding the new descriptions, I saw that much of the information that had already been entered was outdated. There were hundreds of digital files that had been uploaded in the wrong format and needed to be replaced. And because AOR had undergone significant changes in the past few years, the way the previous descriptions had been entered was not consistent with the way I was being instructed to enter the new information. After a few weeks, I asked our director, Mary Nutting, if it would be worthwhile to go through each of our descriptions, which numbered well into the thousands, and update them all to meet the current standards.

The project has taken nearly one and a half years, and there were times when it seemed as though I would never come to the end of the revisions. But apart from adding a few new PDF files, the work is now essentially complete! Since I had only been working at SPRA for a couple of months when I began working on our Alberta on Record descriptions, it was an excellent (and very thorough!) way to familiarize myself with our holdings, as well archival methods and terminology. Now that I’ve finished, it gives me a great sense of accomplishment to have worked with ASA in making this information available to the public.

Teresa Dyck
Administrative Assistant
South Peace Regional Archives

Common Ground: Disaster Psychology and Vicarious Resilience


Photo credit: Adrian Pantea

Facility restoration and collections conservation are two of the most commonly sought after disaster relief services for archives. Disaster relief services regarding staff’s health is equally as important as the state of the facility and collection. The emotional toll of disaster recovery and remediation can be a physical, as well as a mental burden on staff members. Psychologists are often called on scene during emergencies and disasters to provide emotional support to victims, survivors, volunteers and disaster relief operations workers. Psychological trauma, also known as vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, and compassion fatigue is not an uncommon experience for persons after a major event.

It is recommended to hold staff training meetings to practice disaster response scenarios. While it is important to practice staff and collection evacuation techniques, it is also important to foster staff coping strategies, called ‘vicarious resilience’. Staff can be familiarized with coping strategies by referring to disaster psychology books, such as, Vicarious Trauma and Disaster Mental Health: Understanding Risks and Promoting Resilience by authors Gertie Quitangon and Mark Evces. Practicing the coping strategies will help staff mentally prepare for traumatic events as well as cope with the emotional trauma caused by these events after they have occurred.

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