Writing on a Wall (part 2)

I’d like to continue the theme of my last blog, where I discussed established principles for writing text on a wall. These apply not only to museums and galleries, but other public spaces such as information boards.

It goes without saying that the writing should be grammatically correct. Less obvious is that sentences need to be kept short. People are reading wall text standing up, an arm’s length or more away. They may be tired and suffering ‘museum back’, and could easily be distracted by something more enticing in the gallery. Sentences beyond 15 words in length become increasingly challenging to read and some people will give up. By 25 words half the audience has been lost, and almost no-one is still reading at 30.

Punctuation is also the enemy of the curator. The ideal sentence contains no punctuation other than the full stop. A comma gives the reader an opportunity to pause, and indeed to stop reading. Subordinate clauses can make the meaning hard to follow, and people forced to back-track to fully understand may simply not bother. Colons, semicolons, em-dashes and brackets are beyond the pale. Question marks can appear patronising, can’t they? Exclamation marks can look childish – just ask the kids!

Without being simplistic, common words are preferable to long and obscure ones. Archaeologists ‘dig’ rather than ‘excavate’. Instead of them ‘evaluating’ or ‘elucidating’ or ‘extrapolating’, plainer English explanations need to be explored.

The objects are cool – so the text should be cool too.

Within these guidelines, the writing still needs to be fluid and engaging. Museum curators can borrow principles from magazine writers, who are aiming to entertain and inform without lecturing. The use of active verbs is preferred: “The dockers unloaded the ship” rather than “The ship was unloaded by dockers”. Excitement can be injected, where “The soldiers charged onto the beach” rather than “Soldiers were landed on the beach.” Weak nouns are also discouraged: “the soldier was brave”, he did not “display bravery”. This fights against the novelist’s training to avoid adjectives, so the truck “struggled to climb the steep hill” rather than “struggled due to the hill’s steepness”.

The above guidelines make it challenging to still write interesting text. Breaking up long sentences requires some skill and imagination. The text can become choppy. There is also a temptation to use a lot of T-words, namely The, Their, Them, They and That which makes for boring reading, especially when used for successive sentences such as in this paragraph. Curatorial knowledge is essential, good writing skills help, and editing to a ‘House Style’ becomes critical.

When you are next in a museum or gallery, have a look to see how many of these principles have been applied. You’ll never read a museum text board in the same way again.

With thanks to Guernsey Museum for use of images from their exhibition ‘Engage Warp Drive’.

 

Writing on a Wall

Writing for museums is a skill in its own right. Tucked into a novel, you should become so immersed in the book you cease to be aware you are reading at all. In the same way, when you are in a museum, you should enjoy the objects on show and not be aware of the work that has gone into crafting those captions and text boards. The curator’s voice is a whisper not a yell.

Museum curators tend to be experts in their subject, and many write academic papers and books aimed at other experts, but exhibitions require a completely different approach. The curator may have a doctorate in archaeology, but the vast majority of people who view the exhibition will not. Visitors will include school groups, Dutch tourists, Dad keeping the kids busy on a wet Saturday, students working on projects and otherwise keen museum-goers whose enthusiasm is flagging a couple of hours into the visit.

The curator is not writing ‘a book on a wall’ – this mistake is often made by small museums run by enthusiasts. Few people have the time or patience to read more than a couple of hundred words whilst standing in a museum gallery, and want to get to the punchline as soon as possible.

 

Journalists working on popular tabloid newspapers face the same challenge; complex issues need to be explained to the ‘interested non-specialist’ using as few words as possible. However, it is important that in doing this the museum does not ‘dumb down’ or become simplistic.

Tabloid news is also often told backwards, with a give-away headline followed immediately by the crux of the story and then by the events leading up to it. Many people will only look at the photo, read the headline and the first few lines of copy and never actually get into the duller detail. I admit to reading most news stories like that.

Museums address this by using ‘three level text’. First comes the title on the text board, enough for people in a rush or those who don’t speak very good English to learn roughly what they are looking at. Next comes a paragraph of the key information for those who want a little more detail.  The third level offers additional paragraphs to satisfy the more curious, although in reality we are only talking another 2 to 300 words.

Research shows that the majority of museum text and captions are not read by the average visitor; people pick and choose which items they want to discover more about, and tend to have more appetite for reading soon after arrival than they do an hour or more later.

 

The curator’s challenge is to not discourage the reader by making text too complex, too long-winded or too technical. ‘Access’ is a museum buzz-word which includes enabling maximum appreciation of the exhibition by visitors of diverse ages, educational level, cultural background and emotional maturity. Jargon and artbabble are simply turn-offs; the aim is to explain, not show off how clever we are. Museums should be for everyone, not just ‘posh white people who have been to university’.

In Part 2 next week I’ll be looking at some do’s and don’ts for wall text.

Thanks to Guernsey Museum for use of text board images

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