MuseumMinute

Too many words! …?

I’ve noticed that my blog posts have been getting longer and longer lately. And, I’m afraid that other people are starting to notice…

Therefore, I’m going to try my darndest to keep my blog posts short, sweet, and one minute long (excluding videos or external links).

This dilemma reminds me of exhibit writing. Curators and exhibit developers often know a lot about the topic of their exhibit, and feel the need to share all of their information with the world. But that’s not a good idea. If you put too much on a label, the average visitor will glance at it and walk away. If you write too little, your visitors won’t get enough information to successfully experience the exhibit.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art

So what’s the compromise? The ideal word count for exhibit labels depends on the type of exhibit, the anticipated audience (and their reading level), and the amount of information you plan to convey. In addition, I highly suggest creating an outline of the exhibit so you fully understand how your subject matter flows through the space, what information is vital, and what information would be nice to include, but wouldn’t necessarily leave visitors confused if it was missing.

After that, I follow word counts closely. I keep my introductory text at 150 words or less, with section headings at around 75 words. Secondary information should be about 40 words, with captions at 25 or less. If you’re developing an exhibit for a scholarly audience, you can use more collegiate language than you would for, say, a children’s museum or family-oriented space.

While you certainly don’t want to “dumb down” your content, you should attempt to pick vocabulary that is familiar to a wide audience. If specialized language or jargon is needed to explain something, be sure to define the words.

Balance is key. The last thing you want is for someone to look at a label and say, “I don’t have the time for that!” or “There are words there I don’t know …I guess I’ll just skip it.” Remember your audience, remember your medium, and remember–exhibits are meant to be an educational experience.

Sometimes, no words are needed (at the Roman Baths in Bath, UK)

(p.s. I definitely went over my 300 word limit on this post. Editing can be DIFFICULT!)

7 thoughts on “Too many words! …?

  1. I almost never go through an exhibit in the “expected way” – I tend to just bounce wildly from place to place. In fact, I HATE it when an exhibit forces me to shuffle in a long line from case to case. The Pirates exhibit at the Field Museum and the recent traveling King Tut exhibit (I saw it at the De Young Museum in San Francisco) are examples of this. Therefore, I enjoy any exhibit that has more of a “choose your own adventure” vibe, where you don’t have to have read anything in sequential order (except the introduction first) to understand the story of the objects in the case.

    Also, I totally have a photograph of me (at high school age) visiting the Roman baths in Bath, where I am rebelliously sticking my hand into the water and grinning like an idiot.

  2. Re: Labels – Museums labels are tricky. Too short leaves more to be desired. If they’re too long, they are just boring and uninspiring.

    Re: posts – In terms of blog posts, the shorter the better, but if the topic requires more words, then I don’t see anything wrong with making it longer. There aren’t any rules out there, but I’ve heard that the most successful posts are no longer than 500-750 words. I think it also depends on the type of blog that one has, for mine, it varies, some posts are very short and others are very long. If the information is interesting, people will keep reading.

    • Interesting. I would definitely agree that the the best posts are on the shorter side. And, as my blog is called the Museum Minute, I try to keep them as short as possible. My blog posts seem to be part informal journal, part tutorial, and part exhibit label.

  3. Check out winning exhibit labels at http://www.museum-ed.org, under the Interpretation menu item. Every year the curatorial committee of the American Association of Mueums awards great exhibit labels a thumbs up in a contest associated with their annaul conference. Museum- Ed has several years winners documented on it’s site. There’s other great stuff, guidelines, etc. under the Interpretation menu.

    • Hi Kris, thanks for the note!
      I actually wanted to submit something to the competition this last winter, but I found out about the contest too late. I’m hoping to enter something for this year!

  4. I agree, too many labels are books on the wall. That doesn’t help the visitor experience, which doesn’t help the institution. For me, distillation is the hardest part of the process — I remember once spending two hours crafting one scientifically tricky paragraph for an exhibition about the solar system. But when you nail it — when you have that short, snappy label that that visitors actually stop to read — it’s so incredibly satisfying.

    • I completely agree. Before I starting working with exhibits, I had no idea that label writing is an art form. I hope to expand on this topic in a future post. Thanks for stopping by!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s