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Orphaned Labels


We’ve already had a cupboard of things no one knows the names of. Here’s a box of labels that have got separated from their objects.

I wonder what it is that has been lost exactly? And what has been gained?

Orphaned Labels

What would it be like if we could take the labels off everything in the world?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. David Gelsthorpe permalink*
    16/07/2009 11:33 am

    I think this is a really interesting one.

    The information with objects is very important for natural history objects. Most of their ‘value’ comes from where and when they were found. Obejcts which have lost this information are of little value to scientific researchers. I guess this is only one group of people the museum tries to reach.

    The flip side is that museums throughout the world spend years and years trying to catalogue their collection, because they don’t want to miss out on any fragment of information. Maybe we could get the objects used much more if we recorded less information and catalogued things faster (we are trying to do this at Manchester Museum).

    My vote is spend a few days seeing if the lables can be matched to objects and the chuck them!

    David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Palaeontology, The Manchester Museum

  2. hankspears permalink
    16/07/2009 2:17 pm

    I saw a documentary a few years ago featuring the author Will Self. He has removed the labels from all his posessions – including his Volvo! I tried doing the same for a while, but it takes a tremendous amount of effort and I found it was much easier just to ignore them.

    These labels however, have been ignored for long enough and it’s time to put them in the skip, sorry, recycle bin.

  3. 16/07/2009 4:54 pm

    A label is intrinsically worthless when unattached. The only reason for their existence is to provide a deeper understanding of a far more interesting item. The fact that you have a box of unused labels suggests there are a number of items which are no longer interesting enough for labels.

    Whether or not the museum still has the items, or still regards them as having any value, is a different issue. The box of labels itself is just that – a box of labels.

    The only reason I would keep these is to re-attach them to the wrong items.

  4. Bodger permalink
    16/07/2009 5:02 pm

    Is an object more or less valuable if it has a label?

    What would happen if we took all the labels off things in the museum? Would all the curators rush out and tell people about the objects or would we be forced to rely on making our own meaning for them? Would this be a better or worse way of dealing with objects?

  5. 16/07/2009 9:47 pm

    What would happen if we took the labels off of everything? We might rediscover wonder.

    We might find war impossible.

    Evolution has given us a lot, and the ability to efficiently categorize is one mixed blessing. It saves on brain drain, sure, but it necessarily leads to division. Once we define that this is “this and that is “that, then we have all manners of divisiveness in tow. Add to that our penchant for adding the “good” and “evil” labels to everything, and we’re really on a roll.

    • Bodger permalink
      17/07/2009 8:50 am

      Thank you so much for assuming that people have no sense of wonder. Funny that, because I know plenty of people who have just that sense.

      And let’s just jump to the conclusion that without labels there’d be no war.

      Reductio ad absurdum.

      Labels result from classification which results from attempting to understand the world. Not all labels are bad.

  6. 16/07/2009 11:04 pm

    Great to see you here Sarah. You hit the nail on the head, I think. Good and evil are the fundamental labels. Or craving and aversion in meditative parlance. It all boils down to that.
    Check out my next post.
    Perhaps Eve was the first shopper to read the labels.

  7. alex permalink
    16/07/2009 11:29 pm

    A world without labels, what a liberating idea.

    As for this box – let’s make a game with them. Attach them to balloons and send them out into the world. Instruct the finder to match the label to any object that suits the description.

  8. 17/07/2009 11:54 am

    Labels are inevitable, as the human mind will always try to rationalise it’s surroundings in terms of what it already understands.

    To imply there is a inherhent lack of wonder through the use of labels (either for objects or beings) is overlooking the wonder one feels when classification leads to a deeper and more profound understanding. I, for one, need the intricate parts of a skeleton labelling and explaining to me – but this only leads to an informed wonder, as opposed to simple ignorant bliss. It may be no more or less wonderful to you when explained, but the sense of wonder and labels themselves are not mutually exclusive.

    To suggest that we might find war impossible is groundless, naive and self-indulgent.

  9. Martin Schultz permalink
    17/07/2009 1:31 pm

    If i get it right, the discussion so far is about the meaning of labels to our life. For me as an anthropologist working for an ethnographic museum in Germany (just to introduce myself) labels serve different functions. Of course they classify things in a certain manner. But this might be interesting in itself, as a curator 100 years ago might have used terms he found apropriate that no one would use today. So these “labels” for objects from other cultures also reflect our own culture.
    Next the cultures from which the objects came to us might have changed as much over the time as our own culture(s). In material culture as well as ideas, way of life, customs, etc. A member of an “indigenous group” visiting a museum might recognize objects as from his people. But what is behind a label? And what can people contribute to the knwoledge about objects that have been housed in museums for a hundred or more years. Are we still connected to these objects, or did they become disconnected from their earlier use and meaning? And do we have “labels” for this? And is all this of importance as many objects always served different functions?

    We could even use a toaster to get nail into the wall if the toasters surface is hard enough or we don´t care about the toaster.
    So what i try to say is that there might be a sort of “multidimensional” understanding of label and we should possibly firs stop to use the term label “labeled”.

  10. 17/07/2009 1:42 pm

    The part of the mind which names and labels the world is vastly over-developed in comparison with simple sensation. Any label can only tell a part of the story from a limited viewpoint. It can only ever be partially true.

    Labels are constantly, habitually attached to things, even unconsciously. Our nature as animals compels us to react to pain and pleasure, the primal labels. The process of evolution has selected for these. On the basis of these labels we continue to act in pre-programmed ways. This action has nothing to do with ‘truth’ since it is based only on the instinct to avoid immediate pain and gain immediate pleasure. .

    Of course labelling serves a purpose. We could not function as beings in the world without some differentiation. From the immune system, to nation states, distinctions between ‘this’ and ‘that’ are part of the momentum of life.

    Labelling can help us to see we what others have seen, which is enriching. That is the beauty of language. It can help us to learn other ways of understanding things that transcend our own immediate and limited view. Having relaxed some of the self-centredness, however, we can choose to consciously suspend all labelling in the interest of an experiential perspective beyond the limitations of any language.

    Try this and you may be surprised. What happens for instance when you consciously resist the tendency to label a sensation as pleasure or pain and simply observe it in detail? How long is it possible to sustain this objectivity?

    A less startling experiment is to try to draw a familiar object, like a human figure or a plant. The mental categories of nose, eyes, leg, elbow, stamen, petal, leaf, etc. prevent us from seeing what is directly in front of us. Loosening our grip on the labels allows our eyes to open to the reality of the present moment of experience, which is far, far more complex than any theory or preconception. This is a rediscovery of wonder.

    If we made the effort to be more open to the present unique moment of personal experience, and clung less fiercely to a favourite ideology, perhaps we might overcome the tendency to kill each other.

    • Martin Schultz permalink
      17/07/2009 2:34 pm

      But don’t labels also have a (prescribed) inherent “power” to unite people in that they give us a basis for discussion and finding a common understanding of certain things? This “power”, in my understanding, is the more important factor to work on in interhuman relations.

  11. 17/07/2009 4:01 pm

    please save the labels. I like .. paper in any form. I would say you are all going for the labels are bad angle but labels are necessary in this world of too much stuff. I can wait for something to cross my path and i’ll discover it that way but … in the realms of music, books, art etc, a label is very much like a category. I don’t have time to search all that’s out there and so a label or a category points me in the right direction: dance music, crime fiction, figurative vs non figurative paintings, a jar of somethign that contains stuff i don’t want mixed with my food. A label can be a good thing. And before you say who has the right to categorise this music as dance or that music as trance, well, there are accepted tropes in all genres….

  12. 17/07/2009 4:43 pm


    I’m giggling at the colorful labels you’ve chosen for my idea.

  13. 18/07/2009 4:05 am

    Thank you for saying it so well. I am guessing that my original comment came off fairly trite because I was trying to be as brief as possible. A topic like this warrants more explanation, and I can see why as simple, sweeping statement would be unconvincing. As someone who likes to check footnotes and references, I can appreciate that.

    This kind of forum always confuses me. The desire to communicate clearly conflicts with what I assume is an expectation to keep things short and cute.

  14. 28/07/2009 7:10 pm

    Mankind still evolves – for the better, we hope – and so does our point of view on things. What was thought to be insignificant ages ago can now be of large importance, and vice versa. As time passes we learn more about the ancient cultures we’re studying, often having to re-label items. Yet the label we glued on an artefact in the 18th century, might tell us more about our own civilisation at that time. So take them out of the cupboard and put the most interesting ones on display, please!

  15. Tom Stephenson permalink
    28/07/2009 8:47 pm

    What if we throw away all the labels? Well I suppose a rose might smell as sweet, but it might produce a few problems with Sat-Nav and dating-agencies. WW3 would seem a lot closer, maybe?

  16. 18/08/2009 10:13 am

    To a modern audience, these labels should be self-evident in their use. We have a tag cloud (particularly beloved of bloggers), just waiting for someone to put it together.

    As much as we mock the Victorians for their need to categorise their world, aren’t we just as bad, tagging our photos, our music and our writing? Would we find these more relevant if they had GPS co-ordinates?

    I’d volunteer to take the box and turn it into a response to the hermit’s project.

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