Nearly every project I work on involves the written (or spoken) word. From exhibition panels and labels to audio guides and guided tours, the starting point is often a piece of writing. I’ve been writing and editing museum text since 2004 and while I don’t pretend there’s one set way of doing it, I’ve certainly learned what makes great text – and the pitfalls to avoid.
Either writing from scratch, or editing other people’s work, my role is to help the heritage sector create text for public consumption that succinctly gets the message across to the visitor. And if it entertains or raises an eyebrow along the way, then even better.
Aberdeen Art Gallery
When a group of writers come together to create text in one ‘voice’ sometimes individual writing styles or tones tend can outshine others. In 2016 I spent time with Aberdeen Art Gallery curators and learning staff talking about text. Our workshop looked at the kinds of text they like and don’t like and they experimented writing copy for their refurbished art gallery, set to open in 2019.
Once the real writing was underway, I was asked to review and edit the gallery wall panels for style and consistency and provide some feedback to the writers.
New Walk Museum, Leicester
In 2018 I worked closely with the Curator of World Cultures to prepare interpretative text for an exhibition which seeks to encourage the public to look at art in a new light. This meant writing text that not only gets the message across, but also invites interaction and questioning. The labels and panels we installed are intended to engage visitors and to provoke conversations. (Image: Malika Kraamer)
Audio is a great medium for delivering interpretation – although I understand that not everyone likes taking in information through a headset. I’ve enjoyed writing the scripts for guides at Jersey Lavender (2018), the World Rugby Hall of Fame (2016), the Falkirk Wheel (2016), Braemar Castle (2014), Mickleton Community Archive (2014), the National Mining Museum Scotland, Edinburgh (2011), Chatsworth House (2011), Lambeth Palace Library (2010), the Ashmolean Museum (2009), the British Museum (2008) and even the Stannah Stairlifts factory. Yes, really.
Combining audio with on-screen content – such as videos, images and games – I’ve written the guides at Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College, (2019), St Mary’s Chapel, Oxfordshire (2016), Uppark House (2013), Hatfield Forest (2012), Petworth House (2011) the Egyptian galleries at the Ashmolean Museum (2011) and the British Museum (2009).
BBC Learning: Hands on History
In 2010 I curated an exhibition about the history of the British high street, exhibited in pop-up shops around the country at the same time as the transmission of Turn Back Time – The High Street on BBC1. I researched and wrote text for the display and also wrote labels for exhibitions in each of the venue towns. It was great fun to bring museum writing practice into a project with a television company and the BBC’s engagement team.
Imperial War Museum
Great museum text is written with the end user (the visitor) in mind. To ensure that the redeveloped First World War galleries at Imperial War Museum London were suitable for everyone, including a family audience, in 2013 I was asked to evaluate the exhibition drafts with families and to give feedback to the project team on how it was received. Their responses gave the IWM a deeper understanding of how to write for families and young people.
Other clients commissioning museum writing and text editing services include…
Buxton Crescent Heritage Trust, Derbyshire – writing exhibition text for a new visitor experience (2019)
Mining Art Gallery, Bishop Auckland – editing all public interpretative text for this new art gallery (2017)
The British Museum – writing and editing text for exhibitions and online projects including Memories of a Journey at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi (2009-present)
The Novium, Chichester – writing a leaflet and map to the refurbished museum (2012)
Kensington Palace – copyediting and design work for a range of historical leaflets (2012)
National Gallery of Ireland – script for film tour of the gallery website during refurbishment (2011)
Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery – presentation on combining oral history and narration in museum audio guides (2010)
Media Community Network – curated exhibition about reggaeton (2008)
Vestry House Museum, London – exhibition text editor (2005)
Imperial War Museums – research assistant for The Holocaust Exhibition and Crimes against humanity (2003-05)