Six Tips for Writing Effective Exhibit Labels
Writing exhibit labels can seem daunting. How do you keep your visitors' interest while still communicating important information? Follow these tips to get started.
1. Keep Your Visitors in Mind
- Writing with your audience in mind is crucial to creating clear and concise exhibit labels.
- Not everyone is a native English speaker. Keep language simple but don't speak down to readers.
- Small children and visitors with a visual impairment will most likely be hearing your text instead of reading it. Test your text by reading it out loud - incorporate definitions of unfamiliar words and keep it short to avoid the need for paraphrasing by the reader.
- Assume your visitors are unfamiliar with your subject. You've been entrenched in the exhibit and sometimes it's hard to remember that everyone doesn't have your exhaustive knowledge.
2. Keep the Text Short & Simple
- Most visitors will at least scan or read a shorter label but may completely bypass a label if there is too much text
- Don't use a long word when a shorter word will do. Some visitors may have a limited vocabulary and you want them to enjoy the exhibit as much as others with larger vocabulary.
- Use paragraphs to break up longer labels. Two or three shorter paragraphs are less intimidating than one large chunk of text.
3. Keep Your Writing Active
- Keep to active verbs so your text is strong and precise. Using the passive voice often uses more words and can be vague. Make sure the subject of your sentence does the action instead of the subject receiving the action.
- "The savannah is roamed by beautiful giraffes." versus "Beautiful giraffes roam the savannah."
- "The baby was carried by the kangaroo in her pouch." This one is a prime example of passive voice being vague. Who's baby is it? Is it her baby or a human baby? The sentence isn't clear. So to change it to active voice you'd write, "The kangaroo carried her baby in her pouch.
4. Don't be Boring
- Text for exhibit labels should be friendly, but still speak with authority.
- Labels with a combination of text and graphics have found to be more meaningful and memorable to visitors.
- Including visual references encourages visitors to interact and discuss the object on display.
- Explain technical terms but avoid jargon and confusing acronyms.
- Different displays attract different audiences and so need a different approach. The basic principles are the same, but the tone should not be the same. An exhibit on the Rembrandt would have a vastly different tone than an exhibit on Jim Henson and the Muppets.
5. Keep it Casual & Conversational
- Write your text like you're conversing directly with your visitors.
- Show enthusiasm with your word choices.
- Avoid judgments and sentimental descriptions.
6. Bring Objects to Life
- In a museum or gallery, display items have been removed from their human connection. You’ll want to reconnect them for the visitor.
- Try incorporating quotations to help visitors connect with an object. Quotations can be evocative, thought-provoking or humorous.
- Humor is very subjective, so avoid putting jokes in the actual text. What is funny to one person can be embarrassing, even offensive, to another. A wry comment or an anecdote can easily bridge the differences.
- You can also try to evoke the senses of touch, taste, sound and smell.
- Connect the past to the present, the unfamiliar to the familiar. Relate the object to present-day concerns such as disability or ethnicity.
Looking for Additional Guidance?
Visit the following resources for more information.
- 10 Point Guide to Writing Gallery Text, Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A Museum)
- Complete Guide to Adult Audience Interpretitive Materials: Gallery Text and Graphics, The J. Paul Getty Museum
- Guidelines for Label-Writers, Smithsonian Exhibits
- Exhibit Label Script Guidelines, David Romanowski with the National Air and Space Museum
- Excellence in Exhibit Label Writing Competition, American Alliance of Museums
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