Turning Curator Drafts into Compelling Text

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It’s fine to talk about what makes for good text, but in the real world, we rarely get to write it from scratch. In this session, experienced rewriters walk you through their process of turning curatorial or scientific essays into compelling interpretive text. This session begins with a research-supported overview of what makes good exhibit text. Next, we’ll show you how to turn academic essays into words visitors will want to read. Then, join the conversation to discuss strategies for getting the team on board with visitor-friendly text.

Moderator: Dana Whitelaw, Vice President of Programs, High Desert Museum
Presenters: Jessica Brier, Photography Curatorial Assistant, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Maraya Cornell, Principal, The Nature of Story
Laura F. Fry, Haub Curator of Western American Art, Tacoma Art Museum

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  • Hi – Our goal is to take you through some examples and tips that will help all of us express curator content with clarity and grace and if we can do that, our readers will follow us anywhere. I’m going to take us through some basic text tenets that build upon many of the themes we’ve heard at the conference and cover some examples that I hope will help all of us bring our fabulous curators’ text to the visitor in accessible ways. I’ll begin with the 5 C’s: clarity, concision, clutter and concinnity and, of course, the curator. I’ve compiled examples from the HDM, the fabulous Judy Rand and Chris Keledjian from the Getty who generously shared their expertise to help support our cause.
  • By more, I mean that there are multiple interpretations. By less, I mean the author’s intention is buried under fathoms of jargon. It’s not sufficient for an editor or educator to say to a curator, “This is confusing” or “I don’t understand”. Be specific when you push for more clarity, venture a guess what message they were trying to convey, and pose the question, “is that what you meant?”.
  • © USS Constitution Museum, A Sailor’s Life for Me? More people will read three 50-word labels than one 150 word label. Families spent significantly longer in this exhibition, talked to each other more. 50 words labels that people read are better than longer ones that are ignored.
  • © Gordon Chun Design, Beautiful SciencePeople believe a design that’s aesthetic will be EASIER to use.
  • © Gordon Chun Design, Beautiful SciencePeople believe a design that’s aesthetic will be EASIER to use.“Attractive things work better” - Donald Norman Why is EASE so important?People believe a design that’s aesthetic will be EASIER to use.“Attractive things work better” - Donald Norman
  • Franklin InstituteMore clutter can make it hard to focus.
  • © USS Constitution Museum, War and Peace
  • © Gordon Chun Design, Beautiful ScienceThe greater the effort to do something, the less likely it’ll be done successfully.
  • Concinnity – a great word I found by accident while looking up another word. And it goes back to something that Alice Parman brought up on Thursday from the book, “The Aims of Education” by Alfred Whitehead – basically saying that you can’t learn anything until you fall in love with the subject. Then everything becomes compelling and interesting. Vistiors come to us to for romance and inspiration. Let’s bring that to them in text!
  • Here’s some text that sparkles. The scientist has transmitted his passion to the curator who, in turn, transmits it to us. Text written without passion for the subject and out of mere obligation is dull, lifeless, boring. Remember every mother’s motto: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Curators and editors must communicate what fascinates and moves us about our subjects. If we can express our content with clarity and grace – readers will follow us anywhere.
  • First time on a session panel and my first ever power point presentation.I'm going to talk about working with scientists and other specialists and their writing to create compelling text. We’re talking about text separately here for the sake of discussion, but I just want to acknowledge that the text itself is only part of the messaging package – that imagery, space, touch, interaction, work together to create messages.
  • The challenge is not to end up with something like this. (This isn’t mine!)My examples here are going to be of trailside interpretation first because it’s difficult for me to get good photos of the bigger, slicker projects I’ve worked on, and also because of the challenge of working on outdoor exhibits.Challenging because:- Often the scientists roped into advising on a project where the client is an agency or a city park, have little or no experience working with exhibits. Most people don't go hiking in order to read interpretive signs. I don’t have all of the answers, but I'll share what seems to help me in working with scientists. And I hope that some of you all will also share what’s worked for you.
  • Successfully transforming a scientist’s draft exhibit text into a compelling message can depend as much on your relationship with that scientist as on your exhibit writing skills.
  • It can be frustrating to work with any kind of specialist – on messaging for a museum audience. Wants to say everythingLots of wordsAccurate = Dry, technical wordsLots of qualifiers, like about, sometimes, likely, mostly, etc., which waters down any big, powerful message you’re trying to convey
  • Right up front, before we start working on any drafts, I try to understand where the scientist is coming from. Just like you want to we try to put ourselves in the visitor's shoes when we’re working on messaging for them, I try to put myself in the scientist's shoes.For a scientist, exhibit development projects can be:Threatening: You're going to reduce their entire life's work to a couple of sentences.Stressful: They’re likely to consider any facts on the exhibits as their responsibility, and they feel like it’s going to be their fault if anything isn’t right.Exasperating – I’ve heard scientists talk about exhibit developers/designers the way they talk about journalists. “You never get it right.”
  • Respect the scientist'sexpertise and contribution Allow your specialist to say or write as much as he/she likes. Find it interesting.
  • Set expectations- Communicate what I’m going to do that the scientist won’t like. If scientist isn’t there at the project kickoff meeting, and I can’t meet them in person, I’ll make a phone call.Friendly language rather than some of the words the scientist prefers.AnthropomorphizeWe may be making the kinds of big, unqualified statements that scientists are uncomfortable with. Limited audience attention, and word count limits
  • Reassure scientist that worst fears won’t come true.The exhibit is not a scientific treatise, and it’s not going to be measured by scientist’s standards.Discuss what success means. What are the goals. It’s likely that the goal isn’t to fully educate everyone who walks in the door about the topic.Establish a review process so that the scientist knows they’ll get to check the facts.
  • Establishing a good working relationship with the scientist makes the rest of it easy.What if scientist is calling the shots? The most difficult working relationship I’ve ever had was with a geologist who took control over the geology area of a visitor center exhibition, wrote a draft of the text, and wanted me to condense it without actually changing anything. It was terrible.
  • A possible answer for how to deal with that situation came when the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy hired me to write an online animal guide for their website. This is an organization of conservation biologists. The person who hired me is a biologist. First thing she did was give me a reasonable word count limit and gave a model for what they wanted the text to sound like. Monterey Bay Aquarium. We ended up having the same arguments I always have with scientists about how fewer words mean more and about using friendly language and about anthropomorphizing, BUT, this time I could always point back to what my client had asked for in the beginning.So, if you are in a situation where the scientist is calling the shots, get them to take ownership of word count and writing style.
  • Unfortunately, there wasn’t a design budget for this, BUT we did stick to the word count limit, and I did get to use words like bugs and gender-bender.
  • So, you get a draft of exhibit text that’s written by a scientist.If at all possible, don’t call it a draft. Call it a write-up of the topic. Or interview the scientist instead.Sometime, it’s unavoidable. This is some draft text I got from a park naturalist for an interpretive panel about a beaver family. This is pretty restrained – only 250 words. Even so, if I had just tried to condense this, it would have been really boring. Instead of looking at it as a draft…
  • … but as a treasure hunt!Looking forWhat will address the client’s goals in an interesting wayLede or a hookSomething you can use is almost always there.
  • Client wanted to address idea that beavers are pests, which apparently local folks had. So, we used an analogy to human relationships – quality neighbors as a way to get that across.
  • If the scientist has a good idea, use it. This is an exhibit layout sketched by a geologist who also happens to lead hikes. Panel to interpret this strange-looking crater full of 8-sided columns in a walking and bicycling park near San Diego. His idea was just to identify what it was. Which was great.Temptation to want to put your mark on everything, as the content developer.But if you’re lucky enough to be working with a geologist who understands what the visitor is interested in, go for it.
  • Here’s the exhibit. We’re answering a question the visitor already has. Because we took his idea and gave him credit, he was very willing to work with us on the text.Use good ideas and acknowledge them.
  • Tada!
  • Turning Curator Drafts into Compelling Text

    1. 1. Turning Curator Drafts into Compelling Text Dana Whitelaw, Ph.D. Laura F. Fry Haub Curator of Western American Art, Tacoma Art Museum Maraya Cornell Jessica Brier VP of Programs, High Desert Museum Principal, The Nature of Story Photography Curatorial Assistant, SFMOMA
    2. 2. CREATING COMPELLING CURATOR TEXT Dana Whitelaw, Ph.D. High Desert Museum Bend, Oregon
    3. 3. Tenets of Text Clarity If a passage means more or less than the author thinks it does, IT LACKS CLARITY
    4. 4. Tenets of Text Clarity By the early 1800s, many Native Americans in the West had access to firearms. Most used a Northwest gun—a light, flintlock smoothbore musket that could use a single ball or shot. This preference persisted even when percussion lock and breech loading guns became available.
    5. 5. Tenets of Text Clarity By the early 1800s, many Native Americans in the West had access to firearms. Most used a Northwest gun—a light, flintlock smoothbore musket that could use a single ball or shot. This preference persisted even when percussion lock and breech loading guns became available.
    6. 6. Tenets of Text Concision Be concise! Less is more! More is less!
    7. 7. A Sailor's Life has just 1,500 words of text in all its activity cards and labels combined. © USS Constitution Museum, A Sailor’s Life for Me?
    8. 8. They decided to limit each text panel to 50 words. © USS Constitution Museum, A Sailor’s Life for Me?
    9. 9. Tenets of Text People pay more attention when there’s less to see
    10. 10. Tenets of Text Avoid Clutter Avoid using an unnecessary number of words to express an idea
    11. 11. “When there is less, we appreciate everything much more.” John Maeda © Gordon Chun Design, Beautiful Science
    12. 12. Less = Less clutter © Gordon Chun Design, Beautiful Science
    13. 13. More clutter = Hard to focus. Franklin Institute
    14. 14. More choices = Hard to choose. © USS Constitution Museum, War and Peace
    15. 15. “…the perception of ease is as important as the reality of ease.” Pace Underhill
    16. 16. Tenets of Text Concinnity Harmony or elegance of design, especially of literary style. A harmonious arrangement of parts
    17. 17. Tenets of Text Jared Diamond, one of the most original scientists of our time, has a passionate regard for science and holistically examining the interplay of humans and their environment. Moreover, he revels in humans’ transformative power to adapt to their landscape.
    18. 18. Text Tips • Mind your word count: 12-15 words/sentence. Strive for 50 word passages. • Limit yourself to one idea per sentence. • Read your text out loud. • Simplify vocabulary – or teach it!
    19. 19. “To responsibly teach…. and wildly excite” Don Kerr Special thanks to Judy Rand and Chris Keledjian
    20. 20. ARTWORK LABEL PITFALLS and how to avoid them Laura Fry Haub Curator of Western American Art, Tacoma Art Museum
    21. 21. Mark Tansy, Purity Test, 1991 C4 Contemporary Art Gallery, Los Angeles
    22. 22. Mark Tansy, Purity Test, 1991 C4 Contemporary Art Gallery, Los Angeles
    23. 23. PITFALL #1 UNECCESSARY JARGON
    24. 24. ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM CADMIUM ENCAUSTIC FAIENCE DAGGUEREOTYPE QUATTROCENTO SERIGRAPH NEO-CLASSICISM GESSO SGRAFFITO BEAUX ARTS GOUACHE FUTURISM ASSEMBLAGE STEREOGRAPHIC IMPRESSIONIST DADA
    25. 25. PITFALL #2 INVISIBLE VISUALS
    26. 26. Influenced by Michelangelo’s “Delphic Sibyl,” the artist painted a robust female figure. The composition recalls the great paintings of Mars and Venus by Titan and Rubens.
    27. 27. The Getty Villa Los Angeles, California
    28. 28. PITFALL #3 JUDGMENTAL LANGUAGE
    29. 29. Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Island of Love, c.1775 A variant of an oil painting of the same subject, this is unquestionably Fragonard’s most famous—and most beautiful—gouache.
    30. 30. LISTEN Get feedback from (far) outside your field
    31. 31. THANK YOU! Laura Fry LFry@TacomaArtMuseum.org
    32. 32. Turning Curator Scientist Drafts into Compelling Text Maraya Cornell The Nature of Story
    33. 33. The Challenge Upper Newport Bay, CA The Nature of Story
    34. 34. It’s About Relationships The Nature of Story
    35. 35. The Scientist The Nature of Story
    36. 36. Exhibits: A Scientist’s View The Nature of Story
    37. 37. Listen
    38. 38. Set expectations • Everyday language • Anthropomorphize • Big, unqualified statements • Word count limits The Nature of Story
    39. 39. Reassure The Nature of Story
    40. 40. Establish a Good Relationship • Listen • Set expectations • Reassure The Nature of Story
    41. 41. What if Scientist Calls the Shots? The Nature of Story
    42. 42. SELC Online Animal Guide The Nature of Story
    43. 43. It’s Not a “Draft” A Home on the River Look across the river for a large mound of sticks and mud. This is where the beaver makes its home. An underwater doorway leads to the inside of the beaver lodge. Inside the mound is a cavity lined with shredded wood to keep them comfortable and dry. The beaver lodge not only provides protection from the weather but also predators. It’s a secure place to raise their family. Beavers produce their first young at two or three years of age. The newborn are called kits. Kits can swim 24 hours after they are born Benefits of Beavers Beaver lodges create habitat for many species of plants and animals. Beaver lodges back up water to form ponds, marshes and wetlands. Great blue herons are frequently seen hunting frogs near the beaver lodge. Did you know more fish are found in or near beaver ponds than in open streams? Even people benefit from beaver dams. Beaver dams have a long history of reducing stream bank erosion and flooding. If you lived down stream from a river wouldn’t you like to have a beaver dam upstream? • • • • • Beaver Facts: Beavers are vegetarians - Their diet consists of aquatic plants and tree bark. Beavers produce their first young at 2 or 3 years of age. A fully grown beaver can weigh up to 70 pounds. Once mated, a pair of beavers will usually remain together for life. The beaver is the largest rodent in North American The Nature of Story
    44. 44. Treasure Hunt! The Nature of Story
    45. 45. The Beaver Panel The Nature of Story
    46. 46. Use Good Ideas The Nature of Story
    47. 47. Use Good Ideas The Nature of Story
    48. 48. THE BIGGER PICTURE: Who is wall text for & what should it do? Jessica Brier Curatorial Assistant, Photography San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
    49. 49. WHO WE ARE SFMOMA buidling expansion (Architect: Snøhetta)
    50. 50. WHO IS OUR AUDIENCE? • • • • Children & families High school-educated adults College-educated adults (they want to learn but need multiple points of access) “Art savvy” audience (usually members)
    51. 51. WHAT WE DO WITH WALL TEXT: • Exhibitions and supporting texts tell stories about art and artists. • Strike a balance between a personal voice and clear curatorial expertise. • Engage visitors with our programming: Labels and text panels are one of many ways we communicate with our visitors. • What can in-gallery texts can do that nothing else can? • What is special about standing in front of a work of art? How do wall texts guide visitors through an exhibition?
    52. 52. INTRODUCTORY TEXT - Introduce the artist(s) and work. - Present the main ideas of the exhibition. Give visitors a concrete sense of what they are about to experience. - Convey a thesis (and don’t be afraid to give personal perspective). - Provide context: Why was this work significant at the time it was made, and why is it relevant today? Installation shot: Francesca Woodman (2011 – 2012)
    53. 53. SECTION TEXT - Provide structure to the exhibition experience; help visitors understand where they are in the show and what they will see next. - When describing artwork, offer more detail about process and content, citing examples from that section if needed. - Use this text to tie a section into the larger exhibition as a whole, demonstrating how the pieces fit together and reiterating main ideas presented in the introduction. Installation shot: South Africa in Apartheid and After: David Goldblatt, Ernest Cole, Billy Monk (2012 – 2013)
    54. 54. EXTENDED OBJECT LABELS - Offer information on an artist and object first to a visitor who is totally unfamiliar with both. - Be specific about the object: what is it and how was it made? (Avoid “jargon.”) - Clue your visitors into what they might see when they look at it. - Speak to the viewer that may know a little: Provide contextual information that aids in a deeper understanding of the object. - Put the object in context, both within the exhibition and historically. - Be conversational; write about works of art the way you would describe them to a friend: with excitement and enthusiasm. Installation shot: Picturing Modernity (March - June 2013)

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