One of my professional passions is to help people make the complex simple. For some reason, people think that to sound intelligent, or be taken seriously, they have to give long, complicated explanations. In fact, the opposite is true. There is a genius in simplicity.
This idea of simplicity translates across industries. Let me give you an example from the non-museum world.
One of my clients, an engineer, was tired of the management team in New York asking the same questions over and over again. It was obvious they weren’t satisfied with his answers, and his boss was getting frustrated because the project was behind schedule. I suggested writing up a list of the most frequently asked questions, along with the answers, so he would be better prepared for the next meeting.
As we went through the list, we noticed that all the questions came back to one overarching theme: “why can’t we build the structure our way?” Basically, the New York team thought they had a cheaper solution to the plan my client had developed. Every week they asked the same questions, and every week my client attempted – unsuccessfully – to answer them. We needed to figure out where he was going wrong, so I gave him the chance to explain to me why the New York plan wouldn’t work.
We were fifteen minutes into his answer when I finally stopped him. I had literally no idea what he was talking about. Let me be clear: his English was fine. But he had forgotten about his audience. He was using the technical vocabulary, jargon, and detail he would use with engineers. But he wasn’t talking to engineers. He was talking to upper management.
Desperately trying to understand his answer, I kept asking questions for clarification. He brought out complicated schematics and blueprints thinking that would help the situation. It didn’t. After nearly an hour of this back and forth, I understood what he was trying to communicate: the New York team’s idea didn’t meet German building code. That’s all.
In the end, we came up with a brief non-technical explanation of why the New York plan wouldn’t work. Since he was presenting this to upper management, I suggested that he include a slide with a timeline and a breakdown of costs.
My client was convinced this wouldn’t be enough, so we also worked on a longer answer just in case they asked follow-up questions. Guess what? They didn’t. When they realized that their solution was an expensive, regulatory no-go, they dropped the issue.
Write to inform, not impress
In 2019, we visited a Roman site just south of Barcelona. I love ancient sites, and I try very hard to understand them. But like a lot of people, I have trouble imagining beautiful rooms and important buildings when all I can see are broken columns and crumbling walls. To do that, I have to rely on the interpretive panels. I don’t need a lot of information: I want to know what I’m looking at, who used it, and why. An image showing what it might have looked like is a bonus.
When I found the interpretive panels for this site, I was very disappointed. The first issue was the amount of text on each panel. It was way too much for the average tourist to read. Then there was the language. Here is an excerpt from one.
“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.”
This reads like it was taken directly from someone’s doctoral dissertation. Who did they think the audience would be for this text? I certainly didn’t understand it! Really, the only people who would understand it are Roman archaeologists with advanced degrees.
I truly believe that, with a little work, this text could (and should) be re-written so that most people with a reasonable level of English could understand it. But not everyone shares my views. In a recent online discussion about this very topic, one woman commented that we shouldn’t aim for the simple explanation because there are those who can understand the texts as written and who will learn from them. “It is unfortunate that our society now seems to be aimed at the low end of the scale and ignores those that, by ability, will be the ones to make decisions based on facts that are too difficult for many to understand.”
While I respect her opinion, I disagree with it in the strongest possible terms.
Most of the cultural and heritage professionals I know are passionate about their subjects. They want to pass that passion on to their visitors through exhibits, information, and education. But to do that, you have to meet visitors where they are, not where you think they should be. I mean, imagine if you were trying to instill a passion for reading into a group of six-year-old children. Would you hand them a Shakespeare sonnet and expect them to get anything out of it? Of course you wouldn’t. And if you insisted on reading it to them at storytime, it might kill their interest in reading altogether. After all, why would they bother picking up a book if their previous experience with reading made them feel stupid and bored?
Guess what? The same thing happens when you write overly complicated interpretive texts.
Beverly Serrell, who literally wrote the book on creating meaningful exhibit labels seems to agree. In her book Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach, she states that most people come to a museum to learn, “but they don’t want to spend much time or effort in trying to figure things out.” If people cannot connect to or understand part of an exhibit, they will skip it. Skip enough and they become bored and leave – never to return.
Remember your audience
When you are writing a text for a museum exhibit (or, for that matter, giving an explanation to upper management), you have to remember that your audience generally won’t have the same in-depth knowledge as you. That means you cannot assume your audience knows certain things.
For example, I came across a very interesting painting done in Germany in 1919, which the text described as “a fateful year in German history.” Apparently, understanding the issues of the time is critical to understanding the context of the work.
Now, I confess that German history at the turn of the 20th century is not my forte. I know that the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, ending World War I. It was also the year the Weimar Republic came into being and women got the right to vote in Germany. Even with that knowledge, I don’t know how these events specifically connect to the painting in question. If the curator had just added one sentence explaining what aspect of 1919 was significant, it might have made the artist’s message clearer.
Museums are boring
I think this is one of the saddest statements ever made. However, if I had a dollar for every time I heard it, I’d be rich.
In an article that originally appeared in the Telegraph, Oliver Smith counts more than a dozen reasons why he hates going to museums. Most of them are not really something the interpretive planning staff can do anything about – screaming kids, people taking selfies, the quality of the merchandise in the gift shops. But two of his points are worth noting:
He thinks artifacts are boring. Even in the most prestigious museums, he often feels that the objects on display all look the same. To him, they are just stuff in a room.
He usually has no idea what he is looking at. He complained that museum texts either don’t provide enough information or, if there is information, it doesn’t tell him anything interesting.
All of this comes back to context – the objects in an exhibit should be the visuals to a great story, not just “stuff.”
Let’s look at a very simple example: an early Edison electric lightbulb.
A basic museum label (also known as a “tombstone” label) would look something like this:
First Practical Incandescent Lamp
When I searched museums online to see how they interpreted the invention of the lightbulb, I found a lot of technical information. I learned which types of filaments were used, how the glass bulb was “evacuated” to remove the oxygen so the filament wouldn’t get too hot, and that it was invented in Menlo Park, New Jersey.
If I saw this in a museum, I would think – OK, it’s a lightbulb. I have lightbulbs all over my house. Why is this interesting or important? The label gave me information, but information is not interpretation.
So how could you interpret the humble lightbulb?
That depends on the context of course, but here are a few ideas.
Thomas Edison’s lightbulb was so revolutionary that when Edison introduced his incandescent light bulb to the market in 1879, gas company stocks plummeted, while the value of shares in Edison Electric Light Company went to $3,500 a share. To put that into context, shares of Consolidated Edison (Con Ed), the company which evolved from Edison Electrics – currently go for around $70 a share.
Electric lighting changed everything about the way Americans lived, played, and did business. Factories could operate around the clock, and department stores could stay open later to sell all that lovely stuff.
Architecture also changed with electric lighting because windows were no longer the main source of light. This meant they could build bigger buildings with fewer windows.
Most American homes had electricity and electric lighting by 1925 – and more electrical appliances to go with it. These electrical appliances were advertised as “labor-saving devices” and were supposed to lighten women’s workload and free up their time. In fact, the opposite happened. The brighter, electric lights made it easier to see the dirt in a home, and higher cleaning standards (because of all those “labor-saving” devices) meant women were actually spending more time than ever on housework.
These are just a couple of examples, but if you can make the humble lightbulb interesting, think of what you can do with the objects in your museum or site.
It’s one thing to describe a tangible object like a lightbulb. But how do you describe objects that are more subjective, like works of art? Over the next couple of weeks, I’d like to continue this conversation by looking at actual texts from museum exhibits to see if they work – or if they are even necessary.
Laura Marshallsay, owner and founder of Marshallsay English, is a public historian and Business English teacher. She provides English language services to the tourism and museum industries. If you have questions or comments, feel free to contact her online or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marshallsay English – Because words matter