Writing Text and Labels

This document provides an overview of visitor behaviour, exhibition and text development based on a literature review. Useful guidelines for writing text and labels, and a reference list are also included.

In the beginning there was the word...

Effective labels and effective exhibitions are unique combinations of variables that together can enhance or deter communication. (Serrell, 1996, p.234)

Exhibitions are one of the major links between museums and the public. As communication devices, exhibitions make use of a wide variety of interpretive media - one of which is language in the form of exhibitions texts. (Ferguson, MacLulich & Ravelli, 1995, p.4)

...since the beginning of museums, exhibit labels have been used as instruments for torture on helpless visitors...Labels can be designed so that they have a high probability of being read, meet the educational objectives of an exhibit, and create visitor satisfaction. (Bitgood, 1991, p.115)

They're teaching themselves in their own way basically. They're actually zooming in on something that interests them rather than you saying 'look what about doing this, doing that'. When you go to a museum there's so many different things you can look at and they're actually choosing the bits that interest them. In some areas they stay longer, in other bits forget it. Every child's different if you watch them. A parent reminiscing about a past family visit (Kelly, 1999b)

So what difference did it make that your museum was there? (Weil, 1994, p.43)

WHAT'S THE 'BIG IDEA'?

Every exhibition must have a big idea: a sentence or statement of what the exhibition is about (Serrell, 1996). The big idea helps the determine what information to convey to the visitor. Imagine that you were selling the exhibition to another person who didn't know anything about it, how would you describe it? Try writing it in one short sentence only! The big idea provides the focus for the exhibition around which the story, interpretive approaches and visitor experiences are built.

A big idea helps exhibit planners share the same vision for what the exhibition is really about (Serrell, 1996, p.4).

CONSIDERING AUDIENCES

Having a clear picture of who the audience for the exhibition is guides the whole approach to the exhibition. What are their likely levels of prior knowledge and interests? What are their learning styles? Are they old, young, visiting alone, visiting as a couple, are they with their family or other form of social group? Audience research assists both in identifying audiences and in uncovering their interests, needs and prior knowledge levels about a particular topic.

Research has shown that the demographic characteristics of museum visitors have remained fairly stable, both over time and across studies undertaken in museums and galleries in many countries. Museum visitors are typically more highly educated, with post-secondary education likely in humanities or the arts; aged between thirty and fifty years or primary school aged children; visit as family groups; are in a higher socio-economic class and visited museums as children. Hood's work has found that six concepts affect the decisions that people make about their leisure choices: being with people/social interaction; doing something worthwhile for the self or others; feeling comfortable and at ease in the surroundings; challenging new experiences; the opportunity to learn; and actively
participating (Hood, 1995).

INTERPRETATION

Exhibition text and labels are one of many parts of the total exhibition. Each element contributes to an overall visitor experience that accounts for the interaction between the audiences' interests and the messages to be conveyed in order to enhance the visitor learning experience.

Text and labels must work in conjunction with all forms of interpretation such as objects, graphics, photographs, video and computer and other interactives, as well as with live interpretation such as performances, lectures, and floor staff. Design is a critical contributor to the overall success of an exhibition. Exhibitions are an enormous investment, both financially and physically. Exhibit planners are accountable for this investment and must ensure that the optimum visitor experience is achieved.

AUDIENCE RESEARCH

Research has shown that visitors use exhibitions in the following ways (Hein, 1998):

  • visitors spend little time at individual exhibition components
  • visitors seldom read labels
  • visitors usually stop at less than half of the exhibition components
  • they are more likely to use trial and error methods rather than written instructions in working out how to use interactives
  • children are more likely to engage with interactive exhibits than adults
  • attention to exhibits decreases sharply after about half an hour

In her extensive work on visitor time and behaviour in exhibitions, including data from more than one hundred exhibition evaluations, Serrell (1997) concluded that:

  • tracking and timing data suggest that visitors do what they want to do, regardless of the best effort of exhibit planners to force a path;
  • visitors skip many elements, visiting on average only a third of them; and
  • visitors spend much less time in exhibitions than we either think or would like to think - usually less than twenty minutes.

To hold visitors' attention and set up the ideal conditions for learning we first need to attract their attention. By studying visitor behaviour we can see what seems to be working well and what features attract and hold visitors' attention. Research at the Australian Museum has shown that (Kelly, 1999a):

  • 'museum-type' displays/techniques, such as objects in showcases and dioramas, are more attractive for visitors;
  • where available live displays are the most attractive for visitors;
  • three-dimensional visual strategies (specimens, showcases and videos) are more successful in helping visitors recall key information;
  • where there is more variety of interpretation, items other than text panels will be stopped at;
  • where there is more than one strategy used for one message there is more retention of that message;
  • the use of many different examples for a small number of key messages may be most effective for visitors who don't already know about the subject;
  • visitors participate in active (doing) more so than passive (viewing) experiences; and
  • the average time spent in Australian Museum exhibitions was 16 minutes (SEX); 12 minutes (Frogs); 23 minutes (Indigenous Australians), 41 minutes (Spiders!).

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

  1. Messages need to be clear and concise since visitors spend little time in exhibitions.
  2. Visitors will read text yet don't want to be overwhelmed by it: well written text that is clear, simple, interesting and easy to read will be read, enjoyed and retained by most visitors.
  3. Long text panels and labels packed with information will be skipped by a majority of visitors, except for those with a deep interest in the subject.

FACTORS AFFECTING TEXT

Ferguson, et al (1995) identify a number of factors that shape texts:

  • what is being discussed: the subject matter
  • who is taking part: the audience
  • the way the communication is taking place: the nature of language that translates to the style of the text
  • the structures and form of language used: the choice of words and the interactions between the authors of the texts and the end user

They also describe other factors specific to museums:

  • museum visits are free form: visitors choose what they attend to
  • museum texts complement other forms of interpretation, acting as labels for interactives, signposts and orientation devices and instructions
  • museums have visitors: all kinds of people with a wide variety of learning styles and interests are motivated to visit museums for a range of reasons

HOW DO VISITORS USE TEXT?

Visitors use text in a number of ways (Ferguson, et al, 1995):

  • adults read sections of text aloud for children and other members of their group
  • adults paraphrase the text out loud
  • adults read privately and then discuss the text with other visitors
  • visitors 'talk back' to the text and answer the questions it poses
  • visitors use words from the text in their conversations

WRITING TEXT AND LABELS THAT WORK

Serrell (1996, p.84-91) identified a number of steps in writing visitor friendly labels:

  • start with information directly related to what visitors can see, feel, do, smell, or experience from where they are standing
  • vary the length of the sentences
  • use short paragraphs and small chunks, not large blocks of information
  • metaphors are better for other forms of narrative, not labels
  • alliteration is an easy device to overuse
  • exclamation marks in labels shout at readers and force emphasis on them
  • humour should be used sparingly
  • use quotations when they advance the narrative and are necessary
  • expect visitors to want to read
  • use informative paragraph titles and subtitles
  • have a snappy ending
  • newspaper journalism is not a good model as articles are written with the assumption that readers
    will not read everything
  • stay flexible within the label system - labels that all look the same become boring to read
  • interrelate labels and their settings
  • include visitors in the conversation: encourage their participation

McLean (1993, p.103-112) posed the challenge to produce text that people read and comprehend
easily in the following ways:

  • labels that are combined with photographs, drawings, objects and other sensory elements have a greater impact on visitor learning than any one element alone
  • labels should be designed to ask questions, encourage participation, attract attention, direct viewers and encourage comparisons
  • information in labels can be layered to allow for different levels of engagement through different presentation styles: conceptual, graphic, interactive, emotional and physical
  • setting objectives for each exhibit component helps to determine what types of information and labels to include
  • labels should start with the actual experience at hand: what the visitor is looking at or experiencing at that point in the exhibition
  • visitors have limited time to absorb information so interpretive graphics should be clear, concise, understandable and short
  • if a long passage is necessary divide it into several labels rather than clumping it together in one huge block
  • writers must be able to let go of some information, as painful as it might be
  • people only usually spend a few seconds reading a label so it must convey essential information in that time
  • people usually stand while reading labels: fatigue, the jostle of crowds, the pull of children and the attraction of other exhibits effect reading behaviour
  • decide which elements need specific explanations and which elements are simply re-emphasising a point
  • make sure there are not better ways to present information, such as brochures, catalogues, information sheets, audio-guides, video, graphic images/drawing, cartoons
  • text writing should be considered an integral part of the exhibition development process, initiated and developed along with the exhibit design

TEXT AND DESIGN

Text and labels don't occur in isolation - their design can be the difference between success and failure. In thinking about designing text and labels McLean (1993, p.111-113) outlines some useful ideas:

  • identify the circumstances under which labels will be viewed
  • labels should be large enough to read while standing at a comfortable distance from them
  • need to allow for simultaneous viewing by a number of people
  • they should be close enough to the area or object they are describing so the visitor doesn't get lost between the object and its label
  • labels should be located to allow viewing from a range of heights
  • they should be legible for people with visual impairments
  • the six major elements to consider when designing exhibition labels are typeface; type size; label and type colour; line length; letter spacing; and label production materials

Exhibit Evaluation

Evaluation and audience research is a key way to ensure that visitors learn from exhibitions and have the best possible experiences. Exhibition evaluation is a four-step process with opportunities at each stage to test the effectiveness of the messages and interpretive approaches as well as text issues:

  1. Front-end evaluation is used during the exhibition development stage to gauge audience interest levels and prior knowledge about the subject to determine what level of text to produce.
  2. Formative evaluation is used during development and production to test physical components of the exhibition, including text, labels graphics and interactives.
  3. Remedial evaluation is conducted immediately after opening to see how all parts of the exhibition work together, making practical suggestions for improvements. Use of text panels and labels can also be studied via tracking and observation.
  4. Summative evaluation uses a variety of methods at the conclusion of an exhibition or program to check whether it delivered the messages that were intended, what learning occurred and what meanings were made.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Bitgood, S. (1991). The ABCs of Label Design. Visitor Studies: Theory, Research and Practice, 8, 115-129.
  • Bitgood, S. (1996). Practical Guidelines for Developing Interpretive Labels. Visitor Behaviour, Fall, 4-15.
  • Ferguson, L., MacLulich, C. & Ravelli, L. (1995). Meanings and messages: language guidelines for museum exhibitions. Sydney: Australian Museum.
  • Hein, G. (1998). Learning in the Museum. London: Routledge.
  • Hood, M. (1995). Audience Research Tell Us Why Visitors Come to Museums - and why they don't. in Scott, C. (Ed.) Evaluation and Visitor Research in Museums: Towards 2000. Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing, 3-10.
  • Kelly, L. (1996). Jumping in Head First! - Implementing a New Approach to Public Program Evaluation. in Scott, C. (Ed.), Evaluation and Visitor Research in Museums: Towards 2000. Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing, 161-168.
  • Kelly, L. (1999a). Developing access to collections: assessing user needs. Paper presented at the Museums Australia Conference, Albury. Available online at http://www.amonline.net.au/amarc
  • Kelly, L. (1999b). Finding Evidence of Visitor Learning. Paper presented at Musing on Learning seminar, Australian Museum, April. Available online at http://www.amonline.net.au/amarc
  • Litwak, J. M. (1996). Using Questions as Titles on Museum Exhibit Labels to Direct Visitor Attention and Increase Learning. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Minnesota: University of Minnesota.
  • Longhenry, S. (199?). Labels for Contemporary Art. Museum Practice, 18-21.
  • McLean, K. (1993) Planning For People in Exhibitions. Washington: Association of Science Centres-Technology Centres.
  • MacLulich, C. (1995). Off the wall: new perspectives on the language of exhibition texts. in Scott, C. (Ed.), Evaluation and Visitor Research in Museums: Towards 2000. Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing, 105-115.
  • McManus, P. (1989). Oh, Yes, They Do: How Museum Visitors Read Labels and Interact with Exhibit Texts. Curator, 32(3), 174-189.
  • Samson, D. (1995). Reading Strategies Used by Exhibition Visitors. in Blais, A. (Ed.) Text in the Exhibition Medium. Quebec City: Musee de la civilisation.
  • Serrell, B. (1996). Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.
  • Serrell, B. (1997). Paying Attention: The Duration and Allocation of Visitors' Time in Museum Exhibitions. Curator, 40(2), 108-125.
  • Weil, S. (1994). Creampuffs and Hardball: Are You Really Worth What You Cost? Museum News, September/October, 73(5), 42-44, 62.


Lynda Kelly
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