Don’t make me feel stupid: the language of museum panels

This past week, I stumbled upon an old article from Art News, which discussed how museums around the world are re-writing museum interpretive panels (the text that tells you about an object or a site) to better communicate with visitors.  The article is entitled, “Your Labels Make Me Feel Stupid.”  This really struck a chord with me after an encounter with a fellow traveller in Spain.

We were at a Roman site just south of Barcelona when a gentleman, who heard me speaking English to my husband, asked if I would help him with the English panels describing the amphitheatre.  He simply couldn’t understand what they were saying.  When I saw the panels, I could see why. Not only were the texts much longer than 50 words (the magic number for public historians), they also used very complicated language.  Here’s an excerpt from one of them:

“Moreover, the architectonic proportions of the topographic layout of the Amphitheatre have also been placed in relation to the urbanisation of the monumental structures of the Circus, the representation square and the temenos of imperial worship where the flamen carried out his duties.”

The gentleman in question was Polish and had a very good level of English.  He didn’t understand the text.  I am a native-English speaker who has a master’s degree in history.  I didn’t understand the text.  In fact, I had to look up what architectonic meant.[1]   When I admitted that I didn’t really understand the panel, he went away feeling much better about himself and I was the one left feeling stupid.

Contrast this to the interpretive panel discussing Gaudi’s vision for the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona:

“Gaudi turned Villar’s project on its head and proposed much more ambitious goals. It wasn’t just about redesigning the project structurally but about seeking increasingly refined and svelte solutions, about achieving a greater presence of light.  Gaudi wanted it to be a temple that inspires a great feeling of elevation while also inviting visitors to look within and worship.”

This gives me a much better insight into what Gaudi was thinking when he came up with his radical design for the cathedral.

Using the Flesch-Kincaid readability scale, which indicates how difficult or easy a text is to read in English, the panel from the amphitheatre scored a zero. (The lower the score, the more difficult a text is to read.)  The grade level given to this text was 23, which is the language used in a doctoral dissertation.  Basically, no one but another Roman archaeologist would understand it.

By contrast, the Gaudi panel scored 40 with a grade level of 12, which means that an 18-year-old whose first language is English should be able to understand the text without difficulty.

Since the panels were only in Spanish, Catalan, and English, it would be fair to say that the majority of visitors reading the English panels were not native-English speakers.

So how do you accommodate everyone without insulting their intelligence?  By simplifying the language used.  Aim for a readability score 60-70, which is listed on the Flesch-Kincaid index as “plain English.”[2]  Using plain English, our edited Gaudi panel would look something like this:

Gaudi thought differently about Villar’s project and suggested more ambitious goals. He wanted the structure to be more refined, graceful, and, most importantly, full of light. Gaudi wanted it to be a temple that lifted peoples’ spirits, while at the same time asking them to look within and worship.

This time the readability score is 58 or a 9th-grade reading level.  Those who have at least an intermediate level of English will probably understand most of it without difficulty.  The message is the same but, just by changing a few words and removing an idiom, it makes it much easier for everyone to read, appreciate, and move to the next panel – all without feeling stupid.

Laura Marshallsay is a communications and training consultant in Frankfurt, Germany where she helps both native and non-native English speakers communicate in a global environment.  She has an MA in public history and has done interpretive projects for a variety of organisations, including the US National Park Service.  She can be contacted directly at laura /at/marshallsayenglish.com.

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[1] According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it means:  relating to the principles of architecture or having an organized and unified structure that suggests an architectural design.

[2] You can find the score of your document in MS Word by going to Tools > Spelling and Grammar > Spelling and Grammar.  Once you’ve finished clicking through any errors, a box will appear with the readability statistics.  This article, for example, has a score of 48.3/11th grade.  Online tools are also available.