Let's face it. We've all gone to exhibitions where we moved from object to object, image to image without taking the time to read the labels or text panels. All too often, I see Smithsonian visitors perform this ritual museum dance, flying from one thing to another like toddlers in a room full of exciting, new toys. Yes, it's true. Seeing the ruby slippers in person is much more compelling than reading a 300-word essay about them. Oh wait, isn't that Archie Bunker's chair over there? In a flash, your visitor has darted off to another fabulous treasure and still doesn't understand the significance of that artifact.
So, how do you get people to stay in one place long enough to actually read about the items in your exhibition?
1. In most cases, less is more. We generally keep our text panels to 150-200 words. That's just enough space to say what you need to say without boring your visitor. This is often the toughest job of all, having compiled hundreds and hundreds of pages of fascinating facts about your subject matter. Save it for a companion book. Or if you're small institution, gather your data, convert it to .pdf document, and post it online--quick, easy, and free. You can always provide your visitors with a web address for further information. This will usually appease your most knowledge-hungry museum-goers.
2. Know your audience! This is perhaps the most important advice of all. Who will come to see this show? Families? The art crowd? Regular Joes and Janes? At the Smithsonian, we cater to everyone, even visitors who don't speak English at all. We, therefore, write exhibition copy for those on a middle-school reading level. That's not to say we "dumb things down." If it's a sophisticated topic, chances are the concepts you're covering are also lofty, warranting a deeper, more complicated treatment (but not necessarily any harder to read or digest). After all, it's very frustrating to visitors if they come to an unfamiliar word in the text. Most people will skip it, get frustrated, or simply stop reading altogether. That's the last thing you want to happen.
It all gets back to knowing your audience: Exhibition text about contemporary medical arts (for a show called Visionary Anatomies that just came off the road) was very different than copy drafted for the historical exhibition called 381 Days: The Montgomery Bus Boycott Story. We knew immediately that the contemporary art show would pull in a select audience, while 381 Days would bring in people from all backgrounds, especially school children studying American history.
3. Give it time. You need to let your copy sit for a while. Don't just go get a cup of coffee. Let it cool on your desk for a week or even a month. When you come back to it, you'll immediately recognize the shortcomings of your work (or how brilliant it was in the first place).
Need more advice? Let us know!