Review: ‘Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach’ by Beverly Serrell

I’ve promised this for a while, and I’m glad to have finally gotten around to it. A Christmas present to myself last year, Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach by Beverly Serrell was a solid investment (which you can probably tell from the amount of post-it tabs now sticking out of it). Read on to discover my top ten take home messages from what is a useful and well-written companion for the museum interpreter.

  1. Have a ‘big idea’

“The big idea provides an unambiguous focus for the exhibit team throughout the exhibit development process by clearly stating in one non-compound sentence the scope and purpose of an exhibition.” (Pages 7 and 9)

Reading this one sentence so early in this publication was revelatory. I worked on one exhibition, which, don’t get me wrong, I loved. But the ‘big idea’ kept getting added to. It made an originally concise central idea grow tentacles that were, at times, very unwieldy. Because to cover all those things we needed words. And we ended up with a lot of them. They were good, sure, but some of the most interesting stuff probably got a little overwhelmed just because there were so many other words.

So, when you decide on your big idea, that’s it. Every suggested addition or insertion must be weighed and measured against that idea. And if it doesn’t fit – or only fits because you’re moulding, tweaking or stretching the big idea – it goes. End of story. You’ll end up with a better, clearer, more audience-friendly exhibition as a result. There’s always more you could add, but it’s important to know when to stop, otherwise you’ll run out of wall space.

  1. Tell stories

“Good interpretation, like good storytelling, carries the listener along with the sound of the words and the images they create, and lets the listener participate by anticipating where the story is going.” (Page 23)

This makes me happy on many levels. I love stories, always have, and I love the idea of interpretation as a tool to spin a good yarn. A factual, extensively researched yarn, of course. That said, I don’t think there’s anything stopping interpreters from providing the facts in a way that isn’t dry, that is entertaining, engaging and educational, that speaks to visitors in a voice they can relate to, that captures their imagination and transports them fully into the topic. My favourite non-fiction with attitude is Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s relatable and practical, instructional and captivating. It embraces his personality as a writer, rather than shying away from it, and that – in my opinion – is what makes it both practical and inspirational. Exhibitions, too, can imbue their interpretation with personality, while still getting the facts across (which I talked about a little bit in my post about Gallipoli: Scale of our War). Exhibition interpretation can, and should, tell a bloody good story.

  1. Keep it brief

“…bear in mind that the question, “How many words should there be in a label?” is better asked as, “How many words does this label need to have?” And remember: stick to the point of ideas that support the big idea best.” (Page 43)

This is a really interesting idea to me. Serrell does go on to give suggested word counts for different types of label, keeping these as brief as possible to acknowledge the fact that visitors aren’t too keen to read heaps of text.

To me this suggests the need for a lot of thought about content, or ideas, in terms of weight and delivery before writing even begins. It’s simply not enough to decide ‘intro labels: 100 words’, ‘object labels: 50 words’. It’s looking at each topic individually, considering its relationship to the big idea carefully and deciding from there how it will best be interpreted. Look at how many words you would need to tell that story well, erring on the side of brevity, and then decide what type of label it will require.

  1. Appeal broadly

“Exhibit planners should decide what the important exhibition messages are and communicate them using whatever media is most suited to that message, in a way that will reach the broadest possible audience.” (Page 61)

I think this is a key piece of advice. It encourages interpreters to think outside the box when considering how to tell the stories of their exhibition. And there are ever increasing ways available to us to do just that. As much as I love words, I will admit that they aren’t always the most useful or effective interpretive tool. There’s video, audio, digital interactives, hands-on interactives, images, art, performance, face-to-face discussion and so many more. Fit the media to the message and consider who can access that media. The way I think about that last point is as follows: if you know your display’s target audience is not comfortable with technology, don’t relegate all the interpretation to a smartphone app.

  1. Draw in the ‘commonest common denominator’

“Aim for the majority, appearing to the would-be readers: people who will read if the label is short enough, if it looks easy to read, if it is legible, and if they have time.” (Page 87)

Don’t aim for the highest or lowest common denominators is the advice here. So, don’t write for the experts or those who won’t read the label no matter what. The idea being that if your labels do as Serrell says above you’ll draw in the ‘commonest common denominator’ and have a better read rate.

That’s not always easy. The curatorial voice can sometimes be overly complicated, often just because curators become so immersed in and comfortable with the topic, and there can be pressures to leave in or take out certain ideas or specific wording. That’s when having a clearly defined big idea comes into it again, as something to point to and back up interpretive decisions or changes.

  1. Consider your ‘design voice’

“Even though there might be no words on the walls…the exhibition will still have a voice that is delivered by the design (e.g., color, lighting, juxtapositions), that, just like words, should speak clearly.” (Page 142)

I appreciate the power of design, and am often in awe at how the designers I’ve worked with can turn ideas and words into something I can stand in. While I’m not a designer, I think this is an importance piece of advice to highlight. It is vital to match the look and feel of the exhibition with the big idea, as design is a very effective interpretive tool. It can tell gripping stories, too.

  1. Make your images do some work

“A common mistake in exhibit design is to use an image with text because it is available, not because it is the best one to tell the story. To avoid this problem, exhibit developers should overresearch and overcollect the number of images so when one turns out to be unavailable, another suitable one will fit in its place.” (Page 167)

I’ve sourced images for several exhibitions and I cannot agree with the above statement more. Both the idea that an image should only be in there if it’s doing some work to tell or support the story, and that there is no such thing as over-preparation when image sourcing is on the table. Get a good spreadsheet going and fill that puppy up, making sure to keep track of where everything is coming from. I’d also suggest writing the image credits as you go along – I’ve found it saves more time in the long run.

  1. Remember not all interactives are created equally

“Interactive exhibition instructions, questions, and explanations need to be responsive to the individual design and content of the specific interactive.” (Page 95)

This is quite similar to the ‘media fits message’ point, but I felt it was important to set it apart. Lumping very different exhibits under the heading ‘interactives’ and then tarring them all with the same interpretive brush is not necessarily the best option. What works for one, may not work for another. And while, yes, consistency is very important, so is being flexible enough to change up the template when it clearly is not, or will not, work for the interactive in question.

  1. Allow lots of time for labels… lots

“A rough rule of thumb: Multiply the number of labels by three hours each for how long it will take, then triple that figure…This hypothetical scenario was to make you think again about allowing more time for labels. There is no denying that good ones take longer to make.” (Page 236)

Writing takes time, writing well more so. Writing a 50-word label that distils a complex concept, tells a good story and appeals to the commonest common denominator… you get the picture. This is not something that just happens, and it needs a hefty amount of time invested. That can be almost impossible in a museum environment where there are a lot of demands on the time of the curators or interpreters. But if the process is rushed or half-hearted it will be obvious, and the quality of your exhibition will sure.

  1. Editors are your friends

“None of the readability software is able to detect writing with annoying perkiness, pompousness, sappiness, unnecessary questions, or a casual attitude toward accuracy. These factors affect readability, and it takes a human editor to ferret them out.” (Page 283)

Okay, so this might seem like a pretty self-serving pull out given that I am an editor, but I’ve had to justify the things I do, or can do, enough times throughout my career to make it a point I feel I need to make. Everyone, I don’t care who you are or what you do, can benefit from a second set of eyes on their writing (thanks to RB for being mine).

For smaller organisations who may not have an interpreter, or the capacity to hire an external editor, there’s likely someone in your organisation or one of your volunteers who would be able to read through the text and give it a basic check. That’s so important, because there’s nothing that turns people off quicker than text that’s just plain wrong.

 

Overall, I found Serrell’s book informative and practical. A host of real-life examples illustrated her points well, and the specifics around suggested numbers for labels (and so on) have plenty of real-world application potential. That’s always what I’m looking for in a book like this, and it delivered. I hope you find something useful in the ten take home message I’ve illustrated above. Have you read this book? If so, what did you think?

SERRELL, B. (2015). EXHIBIT LABELS: AN INTERPRETIVE APPROACH (2ND ED.). LANHAM, MARYLAND: ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD.
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