Why curators need help writing museum panels.
Six reasons why curators need help writing museum panels.
Don’t get me wrong – I like curators, I really do! They have an important job to do which requires a great deal of skill, knowledge and experience.
I’ve met some mighty fine curators who have blown me away with their knowledge and enthusiasm, and they are a credit to their profession and their organisation. I know I certainly couldn’t do their job. So it makes me wonder, why the hell do they think they can do mine? Here are my six good reasons why curators need the help of an interpretation specialist when writing museum panels.
Because facts aren’t stories
Let’s face it – most facts are boring. It’s the relevance behind the facts that makes them into a story. Unfortunately, most panels written by curators are simply a ‘list of facts that we know’. Reciting information on a panel, and without any coherent flow or story or relevance, is just plain boring.
Because curators aren’t trained to write interpretation
Before you get your curator to write a panel, ask them to explain the importance of layering. Ask them about themes, organisation, relevance and engagement. Ask them about word count protocols and social and learning outcomes. And if they can’t demonstrate some knowledge of these basic interpretive principles, tell them to step away from the panels.
Because they often write for their peers
Most curators still write like they did when they were at university. Writing for a broad, non-specialist audience isn’t their forte. Indeed, most curators are programmed to write in a style which demonstrates knowledge of their specialist subject. Unfortunately, only their equally nerdy peers are interested in the stuff they write. It bores the shit out of the rest of us.
Because they’re invested in their topic
Experts become experts through research and a detailed understanding of their topic. Unfortunately, this compels curators to write panels which look like a cliff-face of text where they have simply regurgitated their knowledge onto a panel. Frankly, like most visitors, I’m not that interested, invested or bothered about their topic. If I was, I’d be a curator in a museum with the same specialist subject. But I’m not. I’m just a visitor with a passing interest, so I’d rather just know the engaging highlights.
Because they have better things to be doing
For goodness sake, just let curators do their job. In my experience curators are invariably busy doing what they do best. Asking them to write panels as well is asking a bit much. Writing panels that are compelling and engaging isn’t easy. It takes time, not to mention years of training, research and experience. Asking curators to fit this mammoth task in amongst their regular daily workload is a bit of a tall order. What often happens when curators are tasked with writing panels is a frustrating, time consuming and expensive mess. The conscientious curator will make several attempts to write engaging panels, only for everyone involved to realise that they have a problem on their hands at the eleventh hour. That’s when we often get a call. Let’s face it, no museum development project needs a last-minute nightmare as the deadline looms.
Because if they cock it up, your site is sunk
Q: What is the main communication tool you use to convey your museum’s messages and stories?
A: Probably your panels
So why would you risk getting it wrong? If your panels don’t do a great job, the visitor experience is going to be crap. And if your visitor experience is crap, your site has failed in its remit. For the love of all that is holy and important in this world, make sure your museum panels are fit for purpose. Museums have an important job to do, and if your panels aren’t up to the job, your site will fail. For the sake of a bit of planning and a few quid you can have panels which will wow your visitors and deliver the messages you need them to. Or you can have crap, badly written panels which bore the tits off us all.