Museums, historic sites, and exhibitions of all kinds spend enormous amounts of energy trying to attract visitors and create welcoming spaces for everyone. Curators and museum staff research and collaborate to create exhibitions on themes with the potential to excite, intrigue, and educate. But once visitors are onsite, do the texts they read fulfill all of that promise? Museum texts not only help people understand what they’re seeing, but can also connect them to meaningful ideas and human stories.
In what follows, I’ll offer some strategies writers can use for composing wall texts, and then provide tips for writing them well. These tips will make sure that the texts visitors encounter will be appealing and accessible, that they won’t just answer questions but will start conversations.
Adapt Your Text for Multiple Audiences
I recently visited an internationally known museum that regularly stages hugely popular exhibitions and has managed to rebuild their visitor numbers to pre-pandemic levels. What strategy are they using in their wall texts to attract their audience’s attention, create a welcoming environment, and leave a lasting impression? The answer: there was no single strategy, no standard wall label, no uniform voice of institutional authority. Instead, wall texts varied in content and tone across exhibits and works.
This is because there is no such thing as a general audience for wall texts and labels. Different exhibits, even within the same institution, can tell different kinds of stories, as long as each story is coherent. Those stories, in turn, will attract different visitors, who will bring their own interests to the work.
The people (even kids) reading the text have already chosen to engage with that work, and it’s a mistake to underestimate them. Your writing should recognize what might have brought them there and reward their curiosity.
Strategies for Writing Wall Label Text
1. Highlight materials and technique
If the work stands out because of the artist’s/maker’s technical mastery or distinctive use of technique or medium, be sure to direct the viewer’s attention there. But rather than simply stating that the work is a particularly good example of a technique, consider pointing to particular details that set it apart. Whether it’s noticing brushwork or observing the shape of ceramics, let the viewer join you in appreciating what exactly makes the work special. You can cultivate an audience by helping them better understand why they enjoy and admire certain works more than others.
If the viewer needs in-depth explanations to understand technical details, however, make sure these are explained in an introductory text or separate explanation. Don’t overload a work description with terms the viewer has to look up.
2. Tell the artist’s or maker’s story
Does this work reveal something interesting about the person or people who created it? Avoid drawing straight lines from biography to work that suggest life experiences automatically produce something (e.g., “She experienced X, and so she created Y.”). If there’s a story connecting the person and the object, then share it. Use specifics to give a nuanced picture of the transformation of experience through art or artisanry.
Go beyond biographical landmarks. Maybe the work is an artistic jumping-off point for a journey into new territory. Maybe it’s an expression of a relationship with a patron, a site of creation, or an abstract idea. If there’s another dimension to the work that would deepen viewers’ understanding, you can help viewers see its specific expression. And once viewers are drawn into a creator’s story, they may be more likely to return for another encounter.
3. Find the people
Perhaps we don’t know much about the person behind the object or the particular circumstances of the work’s creation. But we’re all drawn to a human story, even if it is full of gaps. Can we find in the work a connection to the people who would have owned it or used it before? Is there a human story suggested by the specific details of its subject matter? Or where can we see that the work tries to provoke, engage, or mirror a certain kind of viewer?
The supporting text can highlight details that reveal something about the human history of the work, the populated world from which it emerged, and the emotions that surround it.
4. Follow an idea
Every well-planned exhibit has a few unifying ideas. Of course, you should know what you’d like visitors to understand. But make sure that you keep the most general ideas in the introductory text and use the texts supporting specific works to present the details.
The unifying idea of the exhibit should be clear enough that it is simple to connect each item to it without too much additional explanation. And the texts for individual items shouldn’t be padded with general statements that could be as easily applied to any of the other works in the room.
Highlight each object’s unique way of illuminating the central ideas of the exhibit, rather than emphasizing its similarity to all the other items. Give visitors the excitement of variety and they are more likely to spend the time with the work needed to absorb the message of commonality.
5. Leave room for interpretation
Don’t tell viewers what the work means, and that includes reducing the work to a single idea. Stamping the work with a label (whether it’s “innovation” or “tradition,” “status symbol” or “rebellion”) only tells the reader that there’s nothing more to think about. And of course, don’t narrate what the viewer can plainly see (e.g. “This battlefield scene depicts human suffering during wartime,” or “This pen was used for writing.”). Instead, draw attention to aspects of the work that allow the viewer to connect ideas.
And don’t hesitate to note places where there is ambiguity, missing information, or a puzzling choice. One way to keep viewers engaged is to emphasize that we aren’t done trying to understand these objects, and that they can take part in the process themselves.
6. Hear from the audiences
Just as the human element in the work attracts our attention, individual voices also draw us in. Some institutions solicit responses to the work from visitors (and even conduct research into “visitor voice”), others find collaborators among their own non-curatorial staff, or in the wider community. Presenting these kinds of voices in the text can be particularly helpful in making work accessible, since the practice affirms the power of personal interpretation. It also allows a more diverse range of people to appear in the institutional context as experts in their own right.
But other kinds of audiences can also speak to viewers. These may be contemporaries of the work or its creator, or they may be artists or thinkers from other times and places, for example. Again, they can present their own reactions and interpretations in a way that affirms the viewer’s power to do the same.
If you want to know if a text is well written, there’s a simple test. Does reading it make you want to look at the object again? Does it encourage another look, a question, a deeper dialog? No text should finish the viewer’s experience with a work.
Whichever strategies you choose, make sure that the viewer’s experience in your space and interaction with each object is at the center of your writing.
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About the author
As an editor and a translator from French and German, Maria has worked on many museum label projects for institutions with a wide variety of collections. As a former tenured professor, she has researched, published, and taught in the US and Europe. She enjoys helping museums bring their objects to life for their audiences.