Writing effective museum text

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Introduction to the ideas and strategies surrounding the production of text and labels in museums

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  • *CHANGE: from repositories for collection and preservation that somewhat grudgingly allow the public to come and look at objects on display in return for reverence and gratitude, to places that are at the heart of communal life. Accessible to all (socially, physically and intellectually), sites of social cohesion and whose collections are significant to both local and wider audiences. *You want people to have an informative but enjoyable experience. You are competing in a tough leisure market. Remember you’re the third element: before visitors get to your exhibits they have to be motivated to come through site image (marketing) and quality of service (welcoming atmosphere, etc) *Trends - white, middle class, tertiary-educated, 30-50 with families. Educated doesn’t necessarily mean knowledgeable in the subject you’re writing about. Striking balance between being accessible to target audiences and not alienating or patronising core audiences is hard. * Hein: Read 30-50% of labels in a given display / exhib. Avg 30 mins in museum / exhib then attention decreases. Interactives more likely trial and error than read instructions. *All museums are different. There are basic rules about how to approach text-writing but your own collections will reveal their own challenges. Who are your visitors - locals? Day-trippers? Foreign tourists? Art museums want to encourage people to come up with their own interpretations so often worry visitors spend too much time reading (whereas most other museums worry visitors don’t read enough!). Natural history museums often have to deal with lots of very similar looking specimens, science museums have to deal with abstract or complicated ideas, history museums see themselves as the arbiters of truth as opposed to opinion, social history museums have to try and empathise with people and personalities often long dead and whose lives are far removed from our own.
  • *Remember you may be acting as all three. *Pub voice: an informal approach that may help temper the tendency to be too esoteric / complex on the one hand, or overly patronising or simplistic on the other.
  • *Can be broken down in to headings and sub-headings. *Limits your workload and helps esp. when working in a team eliminate arguments over ego, pet projects and turf. * Show Afghanistan example. Explain context: you get this info at start of exhibition. You get leaflet when you’ve ALREADY PAID – they don’t need to sell it to you anymore but that’s what they’re trying to do with this worthy effort.
  • Current exhibitions at British Library & MERL
  • *You may have had a pathway in mind and a nice neat hierarchical organisation of information panels but not everyone will adhere to that. Most museums are random access. If you have an open plan museum with a central entrance, note most UK visitors go left. *Scramble the labels up and pick out random ones - still make sense. If you read a quarter, do u still get Big Idea? *Standing up, scanning gallery to see how much there is and mentally dividing their time up. Kids, Noise. Average reading speed is 5 words per second. 10 second label = 50 words. Longest panel = 300 words. *Read your label aloud. If it sounds boring or wordy, change it. Need to scan for vital info. * Enthusiastic and colourful language shouldn’t tell a visitor how to feel or convey value judgements. Don’t assume the visitor holds the same values or opinions as you. A whisper in the ear, not a face-to-face lecture.
  • Lucy Trench: Easy (accessible), Spontaneous (like someone talking to you) and Convincing (backed up by academic research). Use thesaurus for variety. Why use a long word when short one will do? Also to convey nuances in mood and tone…Plus certain words get over-used. ‘Object’ ‘Collected’ etc. Don't point out things people can already see (colour, dimensions, etc). Gd combi label has a key fact and plus anecdote but don’t make it achingly separate I.e. here’s the serious bit, now for the fun bit!’ like sandwiches and chocolate bar in your packed lunch. Incorporate your facts and figures into the story. Bring in things specific to that object and it’s existence within your museum - anecdotes. Don’t just talk about that WW2 helmet being a typical example, but who did it belong to? Who gave it to the museum and why? Has that pot had any conservation work carried out on it? * Freeman Tilden, American park ranger. Wrote ‘ Interpreting Our Heritage’ in 1957. Principles still ring true. Interpretive label is not an identifier or a list of facts. It is a label that tries to explain, guide, question, inform, provoke, surprise, make connections.
  • Points of reference: comparisons with today, analogies, sayings to aid understanding and relevance. Be aware of creating text that dates easily. How often will this label be changed? E.g. references to films or people that might be in the public eye now, might be meaningless or anachronistic in ten years time (ref to Braveheart at Royal Armouries) Similarly, the word ‘today’ might not be accurate down the line. Instead position your statement: ‘as of 2011…’ or ‘In the early 21st century…’
  • *Vital statistics… *Size decrease… *Reading now, would do it differently
  • * From sterile to story * ‘might have had’ to ‘may’ –less prescriptive, less wordy.
  • You = direct engagement. Good for children. Some adults find it too invasive or patronising. Don’t use ‘one’ – too old-fashioned. Imperative can be useful alternative: “Can you spot the signature in the clay?” (children) to “Notice the signature in the clay” Humour can be good - Hunterian Museum: Brain Coral. But no one should have to read a joke place. Don’t use exclamation marks - if it needs an exclamation mark to make it clear it’s a joke, it was never funny in the first place. Rhetoric good for headers - draws people in. I sometimes like to end on a question - gd to show you don’t know all the answers, leaves ppl pondering. Subordinate clauses. V&A example ‘After 15 years in a convent, the King took Madame d’Etioles as his mistress in 1742.’ Dangling participle where subject of subordinate clause is not the same as the subject of the main clause. Can be understood but with more effort than is necessary. * Active vs Passive : See National Geographic photo captions. Succinct, active, evocative language, relate directly to visuals. E.g. ‘Lonely and gazing out to sea, wild ponies guard a solitary stretch of Assateague Island’. Use active voice when appropriate. It is often still preferable to employ the passive (particularly when enabling a smooth flow of information and for focusing sentences on a particular topic). This can also mitigate responsibility when reporting on the views or histories of different indigenous peoples for example. Rather than ‘the Igorot believe’ say ‘according to traditional Igorot belief…’ numbers. Partly good usage but also because numbers can be problematic for visually impaired visitors - 3, 5, and 8 can be easily confused. Superscript hard to read. 7th June (Eng) vs June 7 th (American)
  • Only explain complicated or jargon term once. On whole avoid italics as difficult for visually impaired. Quotes should not be the easy way out. But good to change the voice, deflect responsibility for contentious ideas or thoughts, or to make famous associations. Faves are gill sans, helvetica or arial. Obv font size depends on position of text (distance from viewer, high up or low down). Shape of panel - 10-13 cm wide, max 20. Ease of reading. Split into columns if necessary. Consider varying the shape and colour if too many labels of the same sort can become boring, Avoid glossy or reflective finish. Low for wheelchair BUT! at least 1 metre off floor. Ideal 1.5m
  • *Even if you don’t have an official ‘editor’. Make sure two people other than yourself read your work. *Leave several weeks before you read through your work again: you’ll be surprised how obvious some things appear to need changing. I look back at all past displays & exhibitions and think ‘I’d do that differently now’ or ‘why did I say that in such a convoluted way?’ *Make use of external experts or colleagues if no one in your museum with relevant expertise. *Editing is often far harder than writing. Start off with word limit in mind –don’t write an essay then attempt to cut it down. When you’ve put a lot of time into research you don’t want to waste anything but face fact that some of what you write won’t be used. Take comfort from the fact that it’s better to have some visitors read a short label than barely any read a long one. *Need not be wastage, never throw research away. Either file it under the accession number in or update the research field on the database records. Perhaps it can provide a different angle for supplementary interpretational devices such as audio scripts, gallery booklets, guided to special interest tours, or more detailed web description?
  • *Show mock-up on paper. If you’re not doing the layout – make you sure you get info from person who is! Know where text and labels are going and the dimensions available. Waste of time writing a nice bit of text for it to come back saying it’s too big, cut it down.
  • Now read text and pick out themes… *Choose your angle for opening gambit: We went position of Abo Art in hostoical / global perspective. But you might want to focus on it’s more recent history and commercial power: « In 2010 the Aboroignal art market was estimated to be worth up to £200 milliion (Australian Bureau of Statistics) »
  • * Additional texts for more complex ideas – second layer of interpretation.
  • *Note on maps - copyright. I traced it, scanned it in then customiized in PhotoShop….
  • *Nothing wrong with it, but nothing memorable. *Tells you what you probably aleady know. *No hints as to how big the space it, how to tackle it, what kinds of things you might see. *Most useful & interesting info is too small – the themes and the map! *Stuck at side of gallery. Designers sensibly realised space too big to provide route so no ‘intro’ panels. So why bother with this one? Either do something or don’t. * Horrid, reflective gold. Complements gallery, confounds reader!
  • * We all came up with something slightly different. Shows we have different ideas about what constitutes important or interesting information * No right or wrong way.
  • *Writing for audience means knowing your audience so do visitor research! *Uncertainty: use questions Could this painting depict so and so or someone else? ‘it’s history remains a puzzle’. * Human element – journalism, story. Names, places, experiences, quotes etc. *Provide context: introduce characters: ‘scientist and former pop-star Brian Cox has come up with…’ * Ensure text engages with object. Can everything I refer to be seen? Anything screaming out that I haven’t mentioned?
  • *Observation: dwell time, how many read intro panels, etc. Notice anyone reading labels aloud to others in party or making comments. What do they ask attendants? * Obv can form own interpretation but as long as it’s not ‘ummm’ or I think…’ or contradictory to curatorial purpose then OK.
  • *Remember al this today has been guidelines, not rules. There are only three rules in writing good labels: Be as brief as possible, make a point, use accessible language.
  • CHANGE: from repositories for collection and preservation that somewhat grudgingly allow the public to come and look at objects on display in return for reverence and gratitude, to places that are at the heart of communal life. Accessible to all (socially, physically and intellectually), sites of social cohesion and whose collections are significant to both local and wider audiences.
  • Writing effective museum text

    1. 1. Introduction• The role of museums has changed from purely custodian-led to audience-led• ‘Infotainment’ is not a dirty word.• No such thing as an ‘average visitor’ but there are ‘core’ audiences and ‘target’ audiences.• ‘Visitors don’t read labels.’ Paradox: visitors read less than 50% but still expect them..• All museums are different: embrace individuality!
    2. 2. It would be nice to do without labels but objects, moreoften than not, cannot speak for themselves. Three perspectives to take into account: 1. Content (curator’s voice) 2. Style (editor’s voice) 3. Design (graphic designer’s voice) Add No. 4. How you would explain it to your mate down the pub? Three golden rules: 1. Be as brief as possible 2. Make a point 3. Use accessible language
    3. 3. Key Themes 1: The Big Idea• Focus to help you, your team AND the visitor.• For each object or exhibit, ask ‘what has this got to do with the Big Idea?’ Have a point to make.• Topics are not ideas. E.g. ‘Toys’ or ‘1950s photographs’ are just topics. What about them?• Be flexible• Look at exhibition posters/websites for models
    4. 4. Too big: ‘This display is about the Romans’ Too detailed: ‘This display explores fakes and forgeries, famousforgers and scandals, plus the techniques and science used to create and detect them.’ Too bitty: ‘Visitors will learn about molecular structure, chemical reactions, empirical analysis, and how scientists invent new substances.’
    5. 5. OUT OF THIS WORLD Explore a range of imaginings that have provoked hopes and dreams, exhilaration and fear - and see how science fiction has influenced scientific discoveryEveryday stories of country folk: (24 words) Too many e agcelebrating 60 years of The sentences gu Vague lang n la dArchers and MERL, 1951–2011 uage ul f ete (‘charting’, ‘c rf d rkIn 1951 the first national episode reflects tenuo elebrates’) o lou brie elf-le y ma lof The Archers was broadcast. between com us link C uite ests s ious ha lf?Millions still tune in today. MERL po nent s . Q ugg onsc nce) firstwas founded in the same year. What is ME RL? Is it S elf-c audie eedThis new exhibition celebrates really ‘iconic ’? S che ou n Exhibition ( n i Do yboth radio serial and Museum, is mainly  about farmincharting changes to the g – not clearcountryside that these two iconicinstitutions have witnessed overthe last 60 years.(49 words)
    6. 6. Key Themes 2:Objects and Audiences• Gateway objects can catch or focus attention• Make labels independently meaningful: random access• Understand museum conditions, standing, noisy, etc. Label readable in 10 seconds, panels 60 max.• Many parents read labels aloud to children• Don’t assume visitors are the same as you - different values and opinions.
    7. 7. Key Themes 3: Messages & Meaning• Writing in clear language is not dumbing down Language should be easy, spontaneous and convincing. Reading age: 12-14• Don’t waste words describing what visitors can see• DO tell a story but DON’T put a book on the wall• Make message different from Wikipedia entry• Interpretation is neither facts nor literary fiction, but ‘revelation through information’ (Freeman Tilden)
    8. 8. Messages and Meaning Pyramid of• Use points of reference Priorities! (sayings/media) but beware how it can date text• Work from the specific to the Crucial general (not vice versa)• Use a journalistic approach• Layer info for paddlers, Not so crucial swimmers & divers. Use bold, different sized fonts or Is anyone still reading? bullets to break up captions• Include donor info/accession number…discreetly
    9. 9. Patron, western Europe, possibly1550sPitt Rivers collected this patron, believing itto date to the time of Philip and Mary, whichwould make it a very rare find. It is made ofebony and ivory with a spring lid. Inside isspace for five rolled paper cartridges, eachcontaining a ball and powder.A pre-made cartridge saved the shooter time measuringout the right amount of powder before he fired. The paperwrapping was stuffed down the barrel as wadding tostabilize the shot. The cartridges were torn open with theteeth so until the development of metal cartridges in the19th century, army recruits had to possess good molars topass the medical examination.Founding Collection; 1884.28.20 What else would you change?
    10. 10. From sterile to story…sometimes worth more words?Carvings and paintings on rock are scattered throughoutSouth Africa. They might have had magical or religioussignificance relating to the hunting of large game. Otherrock paintings were made during girls’ coming-of-ageceremonies and boys’ initiation rites.Early people carved and painted rocks throughout SouthAfrica. The pictograms they created - such as the one onyour right - may signify magical or religious ideasassociated with the game they hunted. Others showedgirls’ and boys’ puberty and initiation ceremonies. In thepast it was common for archaeologists and explorers toremove examples of South African rock art but many sitesare now protected by law.
    11. 11. Key Themes 4: Style and Design• ‘You’ or imperative verbs = direct engagement• Use humour, rhetoric and exclamation marks with care!• One idea per sentence. Vary sentences length and avoid subordinate clauses• Active vs passive: use both when appropriate• Photo captions often benefit from present tense• Numbers: ‘one’, ‘twenty’, ‘5 million’ not 5,000,000 Dates: ‘19th century’ rather than 19th or ‘nineteenth’• Dashes in numerical ranges or clauses, hyphens in composites: 1914–1918, 19th-century house, hi-fi • Bold type or bullets to break up long captions or lists
    12. 12. Style and Design continued
    13. 13. Key Themes 5: Process• 7 steps: planning, starting, detailing, writing, listening, editing, evaluating• Have a chain…and leave enough time• Don’t get over-protective - you’re writing for visitors, not yourself or your peers• If you’re editing, make sure the person has clear guidelines at ouset to prevent negativity and extra work• After each edit, ensure you have fewer words!• Transcribe and file for easy access/revision
    14. 14. Text example: Aboriginal ArtBrief: Put together a display of the Museum’scollections of Aboriginal art in this space.
    15. 15. Text example: Aboriginal Art• Object selection dictates interpretive focus not vice versa. Had about 30 good examples from northern Australia, but little from the South.• Researched topic, other exhibitions of similar material, sought advice.• Decide on organisational schema – Geographically? Chronologically? Thematically? Typologically?• Decide how much room you have for text. Do a mock up (on paper is fine). Do you need maps? Do you need photos?• Intro panel: Decide on key ideas (max 5):   MANTRA: ‘It’s really important for people to understand… ’• Start with a punchy question or statement, not a paragraph. Why is this topic important enough for people to continue reading? Set appropriate tone and focus.
    16. 16. Text example: Aboriginal ArtKey Ideas:‘It’s really important for people to understand…’• Regional variety• The Dreamtime *• Permanent vs temporary forms• Colonial influences *• Contemporary style and market* Some ideas/aspects will require more attention and expansion than others. Allocate to other panels if space allows or incorporate into other textual devices (e.g. ‘Did you know’ sections or printed guide)
    17. 17. Where were these ideas expressed in the text?Why should I be interested in this? BIG IDEA  ‘Oldest continuing art tradition in the world.’ (para. 1)Idea 1 ‘...number of distintive regional styles...’ (para. 2)Idea 2 ‘…the stories of the Ancestral past (often referred to as the Dreamtime) are recreated…’ (para. 3)Idea 3 ‘Some arts are permanent such as bark painting….while others are temporary, such as sand sculptures.’ (para. 3)Idea 4 ‘…Aboriginal artists have atempted to reconcile the impact of two centuries of colonial history...’ (para. 3)Idea 5 ‘…becoming one of the most desirable and collectable kinds of art in the world.’ (para. 4)
    18. 18. Aboriginal Art: DIY map
    19. 19. Text exercise: Analysis
    20. 20. Text exercise: Analysis• What did you remember?• What was good?• What could be improved?• Does position in gallery affect usefulness?
    21. 21. Labels: AnalysisChallenge 1:Make ‘everyday’ or ‘dull’ objects interesting
    22. 22. Labels: AnalysisChallenge 2:Make complex or rich objects understandable…but not in this many words
    23. 23. Labels: Analysis
    24. 24. Your challenge:Write a labelfor this objectin 100 words
    25. 25. Checklist• Write for your audience, not your peers• Organize your information• Keep to word count• Satisfy access and house-style guidelines (if any)• Admit uncertainty• Include human element – tell stories• Write as you would speak• Provide context• Take care over spelling, grammar, punctuation• Look at object again before signing off – have you missed anything obvious?
    26. 26. Evaluation• Look in comments books. Note people usually only notice bad text!• Observation/tracking. Note behaviour & conversations.• Ask as visitors as they leave: ‘What was that exhibition/ gallery/display about?’ If they don’t know, it’s failed.• Favourite object - Why? How it looked or label info?• Focus groups: Try different layouts, colour, sizes, focus, language. Front-end (interest, prior knowledge), formative (testing) and summative (learning outcomes, lessons for next time).
    27. 27. Further informationWebsites, resources and articles• Plain English Campaign (check out Drivel Defence!)• National Association for Interpretation (USA)• Association for Heritage Interpretation (UK)• Museum Practice (MA)• Guardian Style Guide• Museums Galleries Scotland (Interpretive Planning)• RNIB: See it Right and Talking Images• Lucy Trench, Gallery Text at the V&A: a ten point guide• Stephen Bitgood, The ABCs of Label Design (1991)• Lynda Kelly, Finding Evidence of Visitor Learning (1999)Books• Graham Black, The Engaging Museum (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005)• George Hein, Learning in the Museum (London: Routledge, 1998)• Louise Ravelli, Museum Texts: communication frameworks (London: Routledge 2006)• Rogets Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases (1852–2011….)• Beverly Serrell, Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach (Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 1996)
    28. 28. Finally…Look around you for inspiration!• Plenty of instances of text on limited spaces: other museums, adverts, mini-news columns, websites, food and drink containers, posters, leaflets, tweets• Writing for specific audiences: Compare same news stories as reported by BBC Radio 1, 2 and 4.• Challenge your writing – easy to fall into a style and never change. Predicatable labels are dull. GOOD LUCK!
    29. 29. helen.hales@prm.ox.ac.uk

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