Top 5 tips for writing exhibition text

1.    Step away from the idea that you need to put in more detail as you move down the graphics hierarchy from intro text to object labels. It makes intuitive sense, but it’s not actually how people behave in museums. It works much better to have anecdotal text next to objects, as that’s where people in social groups tend to gravitate. Get any detail into the middle level (themes/ sub-themes) as the people reading those are likely to be detail-oriented.

2.    Hardly anyone will read everything. Some people won’t read anything. They might be there to enjoy the spectacle, feel inspired or spend time with a friend. So make every individual piece of writing work on its own terms. That’s more inclusive too – anyone with dementia might find it hard to follow a train of thought across a lengthy text panel, never mind across a number of them.

3.    Write a lot less than you think you need to. A lot of text in an exhibition can be really overwhelming – trust that your objects and display will tell an interesting story and let go of your desire to control exactly how visitors understand your content by explaining it in detail. That’s not how reading works anyway – we all bring our own ideas, preconceptions and current state of mind to anything we read, so it’s highly unlikely anyone will take exactly what you hope from it anyway.

4.    Mismatch your tone of voice to your content. For instance, taking a poetic approach to science (like Carlo Rovelli’s books on physics) can make it feel much fresher and more interesting.

5.    Vary the pace of it. Exhibition scriptwriters can learn a lot from storytelling in books and films, where there are calmer moments, build-ups of tension and big emotional pay-offs. If you really want people to read everything, this is the way to go.

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