Colorful diorama of the puppet, Zozobra, and fiesta-goers surrounding him. The figurines are arranged on an orange circular base. A yellow car appears at the base of the Zozobra figure, along with people on horses.

How to Read an Object Label

What is an Object Label?

As you explore The Humanities Project, you may notice that there are usually extensive captions for each of the artworks we post, similar to what you would find on a wall label in a museum gallery. These labels ensure that the artist is correctly credited for creating the work and help viewers understand what the physical object is made from. While these are probably the more obvious parts of an image label, other parts may not be as easy to sort out the first time you look at them. This post explains how to interpret the image and object labels that you will find throughout this site and on the walls of our museum galleries.

Annotated Example

Let’s use this sculpture titled Viva La Fiesta (Zozobra) by Luis Tapia as an example to break down the parts of a label. Some museums may use a slightly different order, but the same information will be there.


Viva La Fiesta (Zozobra), 1996
Luis Tapia (American, born 1950)
carved and painted wood, 36 x 39 x 39 in. (91.4 x 99.1 x 99.1 cm)
Museum purchase with funds from the Elizabeth and Duncan Boeckman Acquisition Endowment, 1997

Line 1: Viva La Fiesta (Zozobra), 1996

This first line tells you the name of the artwork and the year it was created. Sometimes for a photograph you may see two dates, one labeled “Negative” and the other “Print.” In these cases, the year that the photographic negative was made is different than the year that the print was made.

Line 2: Luis Tapia (American, born 1950)

The second line tells you the name of the artist. The portion in parenthesis tells you the nationality of the artist and the year they were born. If there is no second date, the artist was still living when the record was last updated. If there is a second date, 1924-1967 for example, the second date indicates the year of the artist’s death.

Line 3: carved and painted wood, 36 x 39 x 39 in. (91.4 x 99.1 x 99.1 cm)

On the third line you’ll find the medium of the artwork, or what it’s made from. You’ll also find the dimensions of the artwork. This can be very helpful when looking at an image online, as it can give you an idea of how large something really is.

Line 4: Museum purchase with funds from the Elizabeth and Duncan Boeckman Acquisition Endowment, 1997

Museum’s acquire art in several different ways, and this line will help you understand how the artwork came into the collection. Sometimes art is donated to a museum, either by the artist who created the work or by someone who purchased the work. Museums also purchase artwork, although they very seldom sell it. When museums purchase art, they often do so with funds that have been given to the institution specifically for buying art. In all of these cases, its important to acknowledge who made it possible for the art to come into the museum’s collection by noting who donated it or what fund paid for the work. In this case, we can see that the New Mexico Museum of Art purchased this sculpture with funds from the Elizabeth and Duncan Boeckman Acquisition Endowment in 1997. 

Line 5: 1997.8.1 

This is an object number. Museum’s use these to keep track of everything in their collection, which can be a lot of items. The collection at the New Mexico Museum of Art has over 20,000 objects! Each object or artwork has a unique number like the one above. Museums have used different numbering systems to catalogue their collections, but this three number, or trinomial, system is among the most common in use today.

This system can tell you a little about the history behind how this artwork came into the collection. The first number, 1997, is the year that the art was added to the collection. The second number, 8, indicates that it was the 8th acquisition of that year. An acquisition may consist of one object or many objects. The third number, 1, indicates that this was the first object that was part of the 8th acquisition. It may also have been the only object. If you see another kind of numbering system on an artwork, it’s because the New Mexico Museum of Art hasn’t always used the trinomial system.

Now that you know how to read a label you can learn some of the basic information about an artwork anywhere on this site, or in most galleries around the world!