I thought you might enjoy a sneak peek of what I’ve been working on as educator-in-residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Here’s an excerpt from the guide to interpretive writing, more to come!
Lack of authenticity implies a lack of respect for your audience. If you don’t believe what you’re writing, your readers won’t believe it either. Consider this example about why middle schoolers should study algebra from the New Jersey math content standards : “Algebra provides procedures for manipulating symbols to allow for understanding of the world around us.” Really? Do you know anyone who manipulates algebraic symbols in order to understand the world around them? There’s a reason that we (and also the kids it’s supposed to address), see right through this. It’s not authentic.
Writing authentically helps fix the potential problem of talking down to your readers too. If you don’t respect your readers they won’t respect what you have to say. The best advice I’ve seen on writing authentically is to write the way you talk. Your interpretive writing should be a conversation with the reader. As museum educators, we all try to be friendly experts when it comes to our visitors, and we care intensely about meeting the visitors where they are. Write as if you are talking to a visitor, sharing your enthusiasm about art, and your writing will be authentic.
The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.
– James Baldwin
Questions on labels or in text produced for students, teachers or in a gallery guide are fine, but only if they’re authentic. Too often questions appear written on labels or gallery guides that ask in various ways: What do you think? It’s a rhetorical question, there’s really no one there to hear your answer and so it becomes an empty exercise. Worse, it implies that you haven’t been thinking up to that point and now you should think, which is downright insulting. Questions are good if they are authentic.
One of my favorite labels with a question appeared years ago at the Walker Art Center next to a Mark Rothko painting. The label gave some information about the painting, and then at the end it asked: “Would your opinion about Mark Rothko change if you knew that his career ended when he committed suicide?” This is a tough question, but it’s authentic. One of the reasons I like it so much is that it indirectly invites people to consider other artists they may know of who committed suicide, and reflect on how this information colors their view of works of art, or not.