Exhibit Development (1): Tripping Over the Words
Today was spent on exhibit development work, so museum exhibits are near the front of my thoughts as I sit back and contemplate things this evening. Over the past few years I seem to have spent a lot of my working time on exhibit projects, and as I’m sure is the case for other self-trained people, I have developed an idiosyncratic approach to this work. Some of the “young people” have studied the development of museum exhibits as an academic discipline; the rest of us continue to believe that we can make it up as we go along.
As a scientist, one of my first tendencies when I began to work at the museum was to try to get as much INFORMATION as possible across within the space available. Needless to say, this doesn’t work in the exhibit context, just as it doesn’t work in the classroom. It is not our job to ensure that the visitor remembers as many facts as possible. It is our job to ensure that the visitor has a memorable experience, has fun (if possible), sees some interesting things and, perhaps, develops an improved understanding of the subjects we present.
Many of us like to deal with the world visually, so it is not difficult to recognize that we should be exhibiting specimens, artifacts, and images that have visual impact. Many of us have a childish love of touching things, so we put out items for the visitor to touch, handle, or stroke (no sharp knives or saw blades, though, OK?). We also like things that smell (or stink), and we like music and loud or rude noises, so we can think of exhibit materials that engage those other senses. And we enjoy pushing buttons, watching videos, opening doors, playing with computers … the list of possible exhibit experiences is almost endless. But how can we actually WRITE the WORDS of the exhibit content? This is often the most difficult stage of exhibit development, for both curator and audience.
I used to think that writing copy for an exhibit was a bit like preparing an article or a research paper. One would do the research, make notes, prepare an outline, distill the information, and then write, rewrite, and edit until a satisfactory piece was completed. Having done more exhibits than you have had hot dinners (or at least it feels that way by this time in the day), I can state that this simply doesn’t work. Writing an exhibit is more like telling a story, and the things that are really important are the things you will remember. So by all means do the research. Make notes. Take pictures. Contemplate and gestate. But when you write the copy, just go into an empty room and do it. The typical modern museum exhibit allows for very few words, maybe no more than a couple of hundred for a large case (including specimen or artifact labels). When you sit down with a blank piece of paper (or screen), you will already know what words those are.