School of Social and Political Science

The Lives and Afterlives of Labels: Reconstructing Historical Labelling Practices at the National Museum of Scotland

04 December 2023
15:30 - 17:00


National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street



Despite their ubiquity and position as crucial components within the history of modern museum display, exhibition labels have received relatively little attention within the scope of the history of museums. Their absence from that scholarship parallels their absence in contemporary museum collections and archives: while museums once routinely catalogued copies of the labels they produced, only a scant assortment of those historical labels still exist to be examined. Collectively, the result is that museum labels – vehicles for telling stories within museums – are routinely missing from the telling of the story of museums. 

The historical exhibition label archive of the Science and Technology Department of National Museums Scotland, an estimated 20,000 individual labels produced between 1864 and 1967, presents a unique opportunity to write exhibition labels back into the history of museums. Drawing upon a wealth of marginalia present within the archive, this talk reconstructs aspects of the often-invisible labor of labeling through evidence of repeated reference, reuse, revision, reimagining, and removal of labels within the collection and redefines the archive historically as a space of ongoing action.


Katie Bowell (she/her) recently completed her PhD at the University of Edinburgh in Science, Technology, and Innovation Studies, working in partnership with National Museums Scotland. Previously, Katie worked as a museum professional in Canada, The United States, and Germany, where she helped develop and open four new museums and contributed to several books on museum practice. Currently, Katie serves as the Research Impact Officer for the University of Edinburgh’s School of History, Classics, and Archaeology.

Please note that all attendees have to be offsite at 5pm, as that is when the museum closes to the public.

Key speakers

  • Kate Bowell