What has museum panel writing got to do with ship-building? Well, you might have heard the old saying ‘Don’t spoil the ship for a ha’porth of tar’, warning against cutting costs in essential areas. I think we can all agree that it makes no sense to spend a great deal of time and money on building a ship only for it to sink because the builder wanted to save a few quid by not waterproofing the hull with plenty of quality tar.
But many museums fall foul of the same flawed thinking. We’ve all been to exhibitions which featured badly written interpretive panels that fail to engage or indulge the visitor. Panels and copy are usually the primary means by which museums interpret their collection, and so this is how most visitor engagement is achieved. So, if the panels aren’t doing their job well, the museum will likely fail in its primary goal.
Visitors feel disappointed, unfulfilled and, often, a little stupid if they fail to understand the relevance of an object. It will come as no surprise to learn that they are unlikely to recommend an establishment to others if they have had an unfulfilling or demeaning experience.
Ineffective museum panels will usually come about through the desire to save a few pounds, which is quite understandable when budgets are tight. I’ve seen museum panels, good and bad, written by volunteers, curators, marketing departments and graphic designers – all in a bid to save money. And that’s great, if those people have the skills, knowledge and experience to write good interpretive copy. New exhibitions are expensive and it makes sense to reduce expenditure where possible. But I can’t help thinking that good interpretation is so important that we should be eager to do well.
If you’re going to produce interpretive copy for your museum panels in house, here are a few museum panel writing tips:
- Keep it short
When experts write museum panels they can sometimes ramble on. Experts, and especially academics, tend to want to include as much information as possible, as if they are writing for their peers. Your visitors are not peers and they are rarely as invested in the topic as deeply as your experts are. Keep the panels to around 150 words and preferably fewer. Nobody wants a cliff-face of text.
- That goes for sentences too
Long sentences with lots of punctuation are difficult and tiresome to read. Remember, your audience is not as invested in the topic as you are, so make life easy and enjoyable for them.
- Cherry-pick your stories
Don’t try to say it all. Pick a topic for your panel and stick to it. Cover two or three main points pertaining to that topic and then step away.
- Stories beat facts
Historians and experts are often curators of facts, data and evidence. While these are important, they’re rarely engaging for your visitors. A list of facts, however succinctly written, is almost always dull. Instead, pick out stories of relevance and interest and weave in the appropriate facts where suitable.
- Keep it relevant
The best stories are the ones that strike a chord with your visitor – the ones which are relevant to them and their lives. Favour the stories that will interest your visitors. (You do know who your visitors are, yes?)
- Use images wisely
Images should add something to the story, making a point that may be difficult to convey in words. A good image can often help to keep panels short and punchy.
- Remember to use layering
Your audience is made up of many different kinds of people, so it makes sense to appeal to a wide variety. Headlines should be not only descriptive, but compelling too. They should draw the reader in so that they want to know more. Cryptic headlines are rarely good, no matter how clever. A short introduction will appeal to those who want a little more info before they dive into the body-text. Don’t leave the best bit until last – get in there with your meaty topics to engage them as much as possible as soon as you can. Keep your detail for the body text, and use it to reinforce and confirm the content of your headline and introduction.
- Always deliver
Your visitor probably isn’t familiar with your subject’s terminology. A word, phrase, place or event might be familiar to your expert, but is it known to your visitor? If not, using such jargon will only make them feel stupid and excluded. If you use jargon, explain it. If you raise a side topic, make sure it’s self-evident. Don’t give visitors a glimpse of something without letting them in on the secret.
- Make them care
Always ask yourself ‘why does it matter’? Why should your audience care? Why is it important? Only then will you be working with stories and not simply conveying facts.
Great copy will make or break an exhibition. No matter how pretty the display, no matter how rare or important the artefacts, no matter how much money has been spent creating it, good copy is the key to making it all work. Scrimping on the cost of good interpretation just doesn’t make sense. Yes, saving money is great and if you have a good museum panel writing genius in house that’s great. But ships and museums will both sink if you skimp on crucial expenditure which is vital to success. Make sure your panels are doing a great job. Your museum deserves it.
If you’d like to know more about museum panel writing or museum guidebook writing, do get in touch. Whether it’s researching and writing from scratch or editing existing text to ensure it’s doing its job – I’m happy to help.