Writing for Museum Exhibitions: 8 Reasons Why You Need an Editor (You’ll Be Surprised!)

from Veronika Hebbard, Editor at Mighty Museum

When Michelle was curating her graduating exhibit Wearing Politics, Fashioning Commemoration for the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, she asked me to review her text panels. We worked together on the interpretive texts for a collection of West African clothing and textiles, some of which are still displayed in the museum to this day. It was the beginning of a solid friendship that is now in its nineteenth year.

An editor is one of your closest collaborators when putting together a museum exhibit or publication. Here are the top eight reasons.

1. Writing and editing require two different skill sets, and rely on two different parts of the brain.

“Writing calls on two skills that are so different that they usually conflict with each other: creating and criticizing,” states Peter Elbow in Writing with Power. “Most of the time it helps to separate the creating and criticizing processes so they don’t interfere with each other.”

In other words, writing is a creative activity that generates ideas and storylines, while editing involves revising the text into something cohesive and free from errors of style, grammar, or spelling.

You might be a great storyteller and researcher, but perhaps spelling and grammar are not your forte.

Or you might be one of those rare individuals who are great storytellers and researchers, AND grammar/spelling superstars. Even then, you need that second pair of eyes because…

2. As the writer, you’re too close to the text to spot errors.

Having no doubt written and rewritten portions of your text countless times, you are prone to lazily scanning those sections when revising your work. But a fresh pair of eyes can zero in on a mistake that you’ve repeatedly glossed over.

You might also be very attached to that clever phrase or sentence that’s not actually adding anything to your argument but makes you sound incredibly smart. A tactful editor will help you part with that phrase without crushing your ego.

3. Writers can get overwhelmed and stuck. Editors can help untangle messes, improve flow, and break things down into understandable chunks.

Researching an exhibit is a labour of love that often involves sifting through mounds of materials and artifacts from countless sources, referencing books and articles, interviewing individuals and transcribing those interviews, finding common threads and themes, and coming up with a unifying idea for your exhibit. And then…wait for it…magically and effortlessly summarizing all of that work into concise, impactful, visitor-friendly exhibition panels. Right?

The more likely scenario is that you’ve felt overwhelmed by all that material you’ve collected, and that you’ve struggled to sift through what’s important and what isn’t when writing your text. An editor can help you make those decisions. Editing is not just proofreading; it’s looking at the big picture and evaluating if your overall narrative makes sense.

Editors often rearrange paragraphs to make the ideas flow better, spot gaps in chronology or logic, notice if you’ve accidentally quoted the wrong person, and identify sections of your text that are superfluous to your main argument. They also help you choose language that’s clear and impactful, versus obscure or awkward.

Ultimately, editors serve as your first readers. If your text doesn’t make sense to your editor, it likely won’t make sense to the people walking into your exhibit.

4. An editor ensures consistency and helps you create a style guide.

One of the first things a good editor will do is ask for your museum’s style guide, and if you don’t have one, will help you create one. A style guide helps you keep your writing consistent across your museum’s communication channels and across exhibits over time. Do you capitalize certain words or keep them lower case? Do you italicize exhibition titles or put them in quotation marks? Do you use the serial comma or not? Do you spell out numbers zero to ten or zero to one hundred?

Many of these decisions are subjective. Both ways are correct, it’s a matter of style and personal preference. What matters is consistency. You don’t want to spell out “thirty” in one sentence, only to write “30” in the next one.

Putting together a style guide can take a bit of work, but once you have one, it saves you so much time. [Stay tuned for a sample style guide in a future blog post].

5. An editor helps adapt your text for your various communication channels: wall text, web copy, brochure, label, social media, etc.

Writing a longer essay for a brochure is different from writing a short exhibition summary for your website, which is different again from writing the wall text and labels for your visitors. So much of the work of curators is bound up with being excellent communicators. But for many of us, that was not part of our training and it’s something we’ve had to learn on the job.

Editors are trained communicators who are taught to put the audience first, to evaluate the best medium to communicate the desired message, and to create content for that particular medium, with that particular audience in mind. They can help you adapt your long essay to a short museum panel. They can take the key ideas behind your show and create short and enticing social media clips.

6. An editor saves you money.

Have you ever sent a text panel to print, only to realize – once it came back printed and mounted – that there was a glaring spelling mistake in the first paragraph?

Getting things reprinted is costly, and we’ve all been there. Getting a trained editor to proofread your content before it goes to print, and to sign off on the proof, helps mitigate those kinds of mistakes and saves you money in the long run.

7. An editor safeguards your reputation and credibility.

In an even worse scenario, it’s possible to miss that spelling mistake and install the faulty panel in a public place.

A few summers ago, when travel was still a possibility, I was showing my in-laws around a national historic site in the Lower Mainland. As we stood in front of a prominent outdoor display panel, reading together about the history of the site, we noticed an embarrassing and obvious spelling error. We inadvertently found ourselves questioning the credibility of everything we were reading simply because of that one mistake.

Editors make sure those mistakes don’t make it past the first draft, let alone into printed, public-facing material. We don’t want visitors who come to our museums or websites to question the integrity of our work, simply because the ways in which we communicate are riddled with errors or look unprofessional.

8. An editor can help tell the story of your site in a compelling, engaging, and transformative way.

“It doesn’t matter how old we are; we all need stories to believe in,” states American theologian Richard Rohr. “If there’s no storyline, no integrating images that define who we are or that give our lives meaning or direction, we just won’t be happy.”

The museums, historic sites, and interpretive centres that we cherish and safeguard play an instrumental role in telling the stories of the places in which they are rooted, and of the people who called – and continue to call – those places home. They are sources of communal identity and vehicles of education and social transformation. Ultimately, we all want visitors to our sites to walk away transformed – by having learned something new, by feeling more rooted and connected to their history, by feeling inspired to work for change in their own community. The texts and images on our interpretive panels play an important role in communicating those messages, and their impact is strengthened when they’re presented in a compelling way.

Can’t afford an editor?

I do realize that for many small museums, hiring an editor may simply not be in the budget. If so, consider asking a friend or family member known to be a grammar geek for help, and pay them with chocolate, a gift card to a bookstore, or fragrant tea (Murchie’s sells a special “Editors’ Blend”). And when you write your next grant application, be sure to include a fee for editing services.

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