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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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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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