Writing Inclusive Museum Exhibit Text: Critical Practices in Action

from Michelle Willard, Founder of Mighty Museum

Has this ever happened to you? You enter a museum exhibit and you see a massive amount of text on the walls. Visually, it’s rather daunting. Are you prepared to stand and read this? Should you? Do you even want to?

As you drift along, reading a few exhibit panels at random, you face another challenge. Not only are the panels long, their tone makes you feel uncomfortable. The voice writing the text is authoritative about the subject. It is writing from an assumption that the reader is white. The narrative is colonial. The narrative is racist. The narrative is not relevant. You walk out of the museum and you don’t come back.

Museum fatigue: it’s a real thing!

Writing compelling, well-researched, and inclusive text for museum exhibits is immensely challenging. This resource produced by Tim Willis for the British Columbia Museums Association goes over poignant tips on the art of writing museum exhibition text. Inside, you will find valuable advice, such as generally writing for a grade 6 to 8 reading level and getting ahead of “museum fatigue.” First studied in 1928, museum fatigue is something that sets in after one hour, and basically involves feeling overwhelmed from reading too much exhibit text.

As museum practitioners, we need to take the good advice found in Willis’s resource package and not torture our visitors with long exhibit text. Writing a book is different from writing museum panels. Please don’t put your book on the wall!

Voice and power

As museum professionals, we also need to take seriously the issue of voice and power in written museum copy. Who is writing the text? Who is the audience? From what perspective is the writer coming from?

Museums, born from the constructs of colonialism, have a lengthy track record of unethical “collecting” (understood by many as stealing) from other cultures, in order to create exhibits about these cultures from a white and privileged perspective. While the tradition of white settler-generated narratives has persisted in museum practice, movements of today such as Museums are not Neutral call for change in the way museums do their work.

Being aware of the colonial legacy of museums is essential for crafting inclusive museum text. Breaking the tradition of white settler narratives is in fact what museums need and must do in order to be relevant in today’s society.

Inclusive exhibit committees

Engaging and inclusive museum exhibit text is not created in a vacuum. Collaborating with local to global is key. Thoughtful museum exhibit text may go through two hundred edited versions before a committee of critically engaged readers arrives at a final copy.

And who would be part of this committee? That depends on the exhibit’s topic. An exhibit about the history of Japanese Canadian baseball players should have a committee that includes Japanese Canadians, preferably previous or current baseball players, as well as researchers and scholars in the field of immigration, race, sports, culture, and more.

Be sure to allocate within your annual operating budget the necessary funds to cover the costs of engaging with diverse committee members and consultants. The better your committee is stacked, the better the final text. While a larger committee may make it more challenging to distil all the contributing committee member narratives into one final text, many museum professionals are not only passionate about this work, but have studied and trained and are highly practiced in this very art of distillation.

It is also important to work with a professional editor for the final drafts of your museum text copy before they go to print. To learn more about this, see last month’s Mighty Museum blog.

Questioning tried-and-true narratives and the importance of research

Creating relevant and inclusive exhibit narratives may also involve dropping old, tried and seemingly “true” community stories. It’s important to examine if the community-born narrative is still relevant and adequate. Who is behind this narrative and who has been telling the story over the years? Are they in a position of power? Do they hold privilege in the community?

To answer these questions, conduct secondary- and third-source research (both literary and ongoing community research and interviews). Substantiated research will prevent erroneous information from appearing on exhibit text panels.

Perpetuating stories that have been passed down and have become part of an unquestioned canon of knowledge and regurgitated in museum text leads to misinformation that can damage the community rather than heal it.

Taking a critical look at existing narratives most certainly leads to alternative and more inclusive stories.