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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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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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