class="column onecol"

Guidelines for Interpretive Writing

We ended our Museum-Ed Interpretive Writing Workshop a week ago last Friday, whereupon I lit out for a week of camping in a remote wilderness with no access to any technology beyond some waterproof matches. Now that I’m back, renewed and refreshed, I’m happy to post these guidelines created by the workshop participants. To develop the guidelines we analyzed popular journalism consumed by museum visitors (think Time and Newsweek) and brainstormed a list of techniques that could relate to museum interpretive writing. Then we wrote about several works of art, and used that experience to refine the guidelines.

I’m hoping that folks who participated in the workshop will comment here, adding to what I’ve written. And of course the list is open to comments from everyone, so have at it! What works for you? What doesn’t make sense? What is here that you never thought of?

And yes, we will run the workshop again, so stay tuned for dates and times.

– Engage VTS Stage II viewer, who is most likely to be the one reading
– Narrow focus, as in a single subject for a single label
– Relate to exhibition theme or other organizing principle
– Not too many ideas
– Few nuggets of info
– Provide “human interest”
– Direct viewer to look at object
– Ask viewer to think about things, with discretion
– Use quotes when helpful
– Arrange content around experience
– Reference popular culture
– Relate story to readers’ lives

– Clear concise sentences
– Use headlines when appropriate
– Grab the viewers’ attention
– Be brief, 100 to 150 word limit
– Use accessible language
– Define jargon that can’t be avoided
– Active voice, conversational tone
– Playful language where appropriate
– First person narrative
– Questions asked for reader, e.g. “What does this mean?”
– Consistent voice across the museum

– Good readable font, type
– Easy to find, to see
– Use color
– Use images
– Use finding aids: sub heads, pull quotes
– Offer multimedia
– Use Web for reader’s contributions

– Keep image at hand for continuous reference
– Occasionally check with original
– Discuss, draft, read, edit, edit, edit

  1. Philip Yenawine Says:
    August 18th, 2008 at 11:19 pm By the way, the Stage II visitor referred to in the guidelines Kris posted above is a beginning viewer well described by Abigail Housen, and found to dominate the numbers in visitor studies that she has conducted in a lot of museums. More about her and her work–and Stage II as well as the other four stages– at, under downloads.

    During this workshop we critiqued a lot of writing in museums as well as examined certain examples of journalism because that is what research has told us our label reading visitors read outside of museums. If what journalists do (think also the National Geographic) is to take complex material and engage us with it so that we learn something, then can’t we learn from their example? When we turned this lens on museum writing, we decided museums had a way to go…. We also did a good bit of writing and critiqued that, using these guidelines. We learned a lot from the process…

    I cannot thank Kris or the participants in this workshop enough for making it happen in a way that was continuously interesting and challenging.

    I have to head out of town tomorrow but hope that this blog will result in ongoing dialogue on issues of writing in art museums. Thanks.