A museum exhibit is not a book on the wall.
If you are passionate about your subject matter, this is a difficult concept to grasp. You want to share everything you know with your visitors. But the sad truth is, the more you write, the less likely they are to read it.
To help master the fine art of writing exhibit labels, pick up a copy of Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach by Beverly Serrell. This well-written guide to the unique process of writing for a museum visitor has become a standard text in the museum field.
Serrell begins her book with an examination of the types of labels found in museum exhibitions, including titles, introductions, section panels, captions and identification labels (also called object labels).
Serrell devotes an entire chapter to “The Number of Words.” The acceptable number of words in a museum label is much lower than you might think. According to Serrell’s research, the average reading speed for an adult is 250 words per minute. A visitor spends an average of 6 to 10 minutes in a 2000 square foot exhibition space.
“If they spend the time looking and half reading,” Serrell writes, “that allows for about 1,250 words. If they spend three-quarters of the time looking, talking to other people in their group, sitting down to rest briefly, that leaves enough time for about 625 words.”
Most museum curators could write at least 625 words on a single artifact in an exhibition. But if you want your visitors to actually read your work, you have to trim down what you say so they will digest it and learn something.
Exhibit Labels contains chapters on understanding your audience, including Learning Styles, Writing Visitor-Friendly Labels, and Selecting the Right Reading Level. Another section features practical advice on Getting Started, Making Words and Images Work Together, Typographic Design and Production and Fabrication.
Writing exhibit labels is an acquired skill that takes years of practice to master. Exhibit Labels is a great place to start learning about this challenging and rewarding process.
The author purchased this book as part of her graduate work in museum studies at the Cooperstown Graduate Program. She was not compensated in any way for this review.