Best Practices in Museum Exhibition Writing (2002)

Chair: Brian H. Peterson, Senior Curator, James A. Michener Art Museum

While museums use many strategies to communicate with their visitors, the most common method is also one of the most ancient: the written word. Often exhibition writing occurs in the context of a cooperative, team approach to exhibit making: ideas are fleshed out, strategies are mapped out, designs are worked out. But when all the planning is done, someone still has to sit down and write the copy. This marketplace is meant to honor the special skills that the exhibit writer needs in order to create effective object labels, text panels, etc. Featured are the results of a nationwide competition in which museum professionals from a wide range of disciplines submitted writing samples that were then juried by a distinguished panel that included:

  • Joshua Dudley, Senior Designer, Ralph Appelbaum Associates
  • Jay Rounds, Director, Graduate Program in Museum Studies at the University of Missouri and Editor-in-Chief of Exhibitionist
  • Patterson Williams, Dean of Education, Denver Art Museum

For the 2002 marketplace, the jurors selected seven entries from a total of seventy-one written pieces submitted. The jurors unanimously chose one entry as representing a high degree of excellence in museum exhibition writing; this entry has been marked “Special Recognition.” Each juror was then invited to select several favorite individual entries; these have been marked “Jurors’ Choice,” and the initials of the jurors who selected these entries can be found at the end of the jurors’ comments. Each juror has also provided a brief statement that discusses his or her values and priorities in the area of exhibit writing.

Sponsored by the AAM Curators Committee

Jurors’ Statements

Joshua Dudley, Senior Designer, Ralph Appelbaum Associates:

I use the same criteria as a juror that I find myself unconsciously applying to exhibit texts whenever I visit a museum and become a “visitor.”

The decision to spend time reading labels is always a trade-off against other things I could be doing in my precious hour or two already allocated to visiting the museum (the next gallery, the cafe and the gift shop all beckon), not to mention what I could be doing other than being in a museum! It is also often an unwelcome demand: I have to read standing, in uncertain lighting, possibly being buffeted by family or other visitors. The text really has to deliver quickly and effectively in order for me not to get annoyed and skip it altogether.

So what do I look for?

  1. Clarity. The simplest, most elegant language to communicate the idea; no needless elaboration to mask a small idea.
  2. Fearlessness. No condescension in the writing to suggest I may not be able to grasp a subtle point; no wishy-washy avoidance of an uncomfortable fact or idea.
  3. Unexpected perspective. I don’t want to read the same old thing again, even if it’s well written. Tell me something new, or make me see something in a new way.
  4. Examples, not opinions. Don’t feed me generalizations or opinions without a few facts and details to support them.
  5. Background. Don’t assume I know what you’re talking about.
  6. The Nugget. A powerful little idea or fact which I can take home with me, that makes me feel I’m a little smarter, that I understand the world a little better.

I think each of the texts we have selected exemplify at least some of these points.

Brian H. Peterson, Senior Curator, James A. Michener Art Museum:

Curators are always supposed to be the ones who fight to the death for long, complex wall labels that only other curators really understand. But my feeling is that books and catalogues are the right place for research and scholarship. A museum exhibition is, more than anything else, an act of communication, and our job is to reach out to visitors and somehow hit them where they really live. As a reader I’m always grateful when, for example, a science writer doesn’t assume too much specialized knowledge on my part, and takes the time to explain basic concepts and terms. Similarly, exhibition writers must always be aware that most people don’t know too much about the subject matter, and need some help with the basics. An attitude of generosity toward the viewer is extremely important. At the same time, exhibit writers must somehow remain true to the genuine complexity of their subjects, and therein lies the tension with which we all must struggle.

Finally, exhibit writing to me must be cognizant of the most basic writing skills. Is there a good opening line that draws me in? Is there a clear thread that connects the ideas? Does the writing use stories, quotes, and other colorful devices that humanize the objects and their makers? Am I given both the necessary information and a possible pathway or two for an imaginative response? Is each word important? Exhibit writing is a creative act – albeit one that occurs within very strict limitations – and sometimes those very limitations seem to generate clever and beautiful results.

Jay Rounds, Director, Graduate Program in Museum Studies at the University of Missouri and Editor-in-Chief of Exhibitionist:

In my observation, excellent labels don’t need to resort to obvious questions or other forms of direct instructions to the viewer, because good writing provides powerful provocations for looking. After reading such pieces, visitors will look, and they will think, without being instructed to do so. Provoking is always better than instructing, and I have selected submissions to this competition with that in mind.

I should also state that I am interested particularly in labels that seem to be effective vehicles for visitor meaning making. Often museum writing utilizes the very traditional “information transfer” paradigm, then strives for cuteness in order to make the “learning” more palatable: lectures tarted up with funny hats. To achieve excellence, I believe, a label needs to reflect the field’s most advanced understanding of the nature of the visitor experience. The very best job of writing in an outmoded paradigm cannot constitute excellence today.

Patterson Williams, Dean of Education, Denver Art Museum:

When I look for wonderful exhibition label writing, I’m usually seeking brevity, directness, vivid and accessible language, and a surprise or two. But even more important is the idea that the message or information must be well suited both to being on the wall (if that is where it will go) and to making the visitor experience more meaningful.

I think the crucial issue for label writing may be the choice of which small bit of information is used. Compare an exhibition catalogue and the volume of information it can accommodate with wall labels (brief enough to be read standing, large enough to be read in gallery light) and the amount of information they can accommodate. It ‘s all about selecting, and if the selecting is not done with a clear idea of who the visitors are and what helps them have a memorable experience, the label won’t do anyone much good.

That said, visitors are complicated and weird as a group and as individuals. That’s what makes them wonderful. Imagine three people you know well but who are not in your profession. Then imagine the perfect label for each of them. Chances are the choice of information may be different. I usually choose my husband, my sister and my nephew for this little exercise. My husband would say, “Give me the information, and as much of it as possible.” My sister might say, “Don’t overload me with information because I’d rather make my own meanings.” And my 27-year-old nephew would say, “Give me a break – is this stuff really important? Prove it!” I once heard a museum director tell people they should write labels for their mothers.

So is there a perfect exhibition label program? No. Visitors are too messy and complex. But writing labels FOR visitors and judging their quality on the basis of what visitors tell us about them is still the best foundation for good exhibition writing. As someone famous once said “There is no solution. Seek it lovingly.”

• • •

Special Recognition

Exhibition: Enola Gay (June, 1995-May, 1998)
Institution: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Writer: David Romanowski, Exhibits Writer-Editor, National Air and Space Museum

Brief Description:
Enola Gay opened in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. The exhibition featured the forward fuselage of the B-29 Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Written by a team of writers, the exhibition touched upon the history of the Boeing B-29, the restoration of the Enola Gay, and the story of the airplane’s mission of August 6, 1945, presented with minimal historical interpretation. This cautious approach was in reaction to the controversy that had led Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman to cancel The Last Act, the exhibition the Museum had originally planned to open. The label displayed here was written to address Secretary Heyman’s request for a “transition label” to serve as a bridge between the initial technology-oriented sections of the gallery and the exhibition’s emotional core: the airplane itself. Mounted just around the corner from the fuselage, the label was meant to prepare visitors for their first glimpse of the Enola Gay.

The “Enola Gay”
Something More than an Airplane
It was an airplane like so many others that rolled off the wartime assembly lines by the thousands; an advanced bomber for its day, but only one among many of its breed. It never sported the distinctive nose art that adorned many airplanes. Not until the night before its most important mission did it even bear a name. Its pilot, honoring his mother, had painted on one side in bold letters, ENOLA GAY.
As it lifted off on that mission, it carried within it a weapon of unprecedented power that would bring both death and deliverance. When the airplane released its heavy load, banked sharply, and turned toward home, history turned with it. By the time its tires touched the earth again, the world had entered a new age.
Fifty years later it seems almost larger than life; as much an icon, now, as an airplane. After all this time it still evokes intense emotions, from gratitude to grief, its polished surface reflecting the myriad feelings and meanings and memories we bring before it.

Jurors’ Comments:
This is a beautiful text on an extraordinarily loaded topic! It is written like a miniature essay, with beginning/middle/end, and moves us as readers on a rising spiral through time: from the ordinary beginnings of the object that is the nominal subject of the show, through the moment when the bomb was dropped and history changed, and back to our contemporary vision of that same object. Each sentence of the second paragraph is perfect. The overall sobriety of the text respects the profound feelings that some visitors may bring to the show. Joshua Dudley

I give Romanowski extra credit for distinguished performance under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, but the label for the Enola Gay is outstanding in any case. It does a very nice job of working the contrast of the mundane physical object (one of thousands) with the unique emotional freight that it carries. It reminds me of Auden’s poem Musee des Beaux Arts, about the “human position” of suffering:

“….how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking
dully along.”

After all the fighting over that exhibit, Romanowski succeeds in a very few understated words in evoking the duality of “just going to work” and “changing the world.” His label leaves the door open for whatever meaning the visitor chooses to assign, but it hits us hard with the reminder of why we can’t just ignore this remarkable artifact. Three short paragraphs sum up not only the drama of the dropping of the bomb, but the battle over the exhibit as well – a wonderfully succinct and powerful “object biography.” Jay Rounds

• • •

Juror’s Choice

Exhibition: Bear Essentials
Institution: Cable Natural History Museum, Cable, Wisconsin
Writer: Laurence J. Wiland
Editors: Allison Slavick, Thomas Williams

Brief Description: The exhibition Bear Essentials introduced museum visitors to the world of bears, and in particular the black bear, a common but secretive resident of our region. The exhibit featured natural and cultural bear artifacts including the skull of an 800-pound cave bear, a pictorial display of a year in the life of a bear, black bear mounts, a replica of a bear den that children could explore, a garden menu of bear food, and an exploration of the long relationship between humans and bears.

This writing sample was included as an insert in a bound, water-resistant menu for the fictitious “Blueberry Way” restaurant. Visitors were given the menu as a guide to a self-paced tour of the museum’s outdoor native landscape and classroom. Entrees on the main menu (not featured here) were numbered and corresponded with numbered labels marking different plants along the landscape tour.

Blue Plate specials
All “u” can eat

Roadkill Hot Dish: For the meat lover in the family. Please specify freshly splattered or lovingly aged in a dirty winter snow drift. Topped with a pate of tender maggot.

Berry Bar: Visit our new berry bar and enjoy a chilled culinary montage of raspberries, bunchberries, blueberries, serviceberries, wild sarsaparilla berries and dogwood berries. Fill your plate as many times as you like; please mind the sneeze guard.

Forest Salad Smorgasbord: A variety of forest-floor greens will add important fiber and roughage to your diet and help clean out your gut. Garnish with grubs, ants or hornet pupae.

The Neighborhood Graze: Enjoy a lip-smacking tour of the human neighborhood’s compost bins, garbage cans and bird feeders. For the daring ursine only. If caught, you may be deported to Ashland County.

Fish fry.

Jurors’ Comments:

For a self-guided brochure this one could really work. The strength and originality of the menu idea is a good attention-getter. The shock of realizing that bears eat roadkill and dip into compost bins comes across well and is memorable. I liked the humor and cleverness of the format as well as the concrete information. Patterson Williams

The concept, and writing, is cute, and probably works well in its outdoor setting. I bet it’s particularly effective with kids. Joshua Dudley

• • •

Jurors’ Choice

Exhibition: Magic: The Science of Illusion (Opened July, 2000; now traveling)
Institution: California Science Center
Writer and Editor: Bonnie Wallace, Senior Exhibit Writer

Brief Description: Magic is more than a simple trick. The interplay between simple mechanics, optics, electromagnetism, math, psychology and the art of performance makes magic the science of illusion. Magic: The Science of Illusion is an 8,000-square-foot traveling exhibition designed around four magical illusions: mindreading, levitation, transformation, and the disembodied head. Through interactives, artifacts, film, live shows, and immersion experiences, guests explore the scientific and social principles behind a successful illusion. A history wall tells the story of stage magic through the years. This writing sample is part of the history wall.

Wanted: magician’s assistant

Must be able to:
• set, pack and care for all props
• handle animals, from rabbits and doves up to large cats
and snakes—no allergies allowed
• be beautiful, glamorous, charming, sexy, persuasive
and funny without upstaging the magician
• make sure lights and music hit their cues
• bring props to the magician openly and secretly
• fit into small boxes and holes
• take the bumps and bruises of a show night after night

Jurors’ Comments:
Assuming a relatively high level of visitor interest in this subject to start with, I thought the length of this panel was on target. I especially liked the use of bullets. The selection of information seemed visitor friendly and well chosen for involving readers in a natural and direct way. It’s a very nice touch to use the idea of a magician’s assistant as an entree to the topic. I could really see myself in this scenario, and it made the subject come alive in a concrete way. Patterson Williams

I especially liked the way this panel took an aspect of the magician’s act that is thought of as essentially decorative – the female assistant – and made the person into a human being who has to work hard and who gets bumps and bruises along the way. There is a wonderful clarity and efficiency to the language, and the social commentary is handled delicately, without the sledge hammer approach that must have been tempting to the writer. Brian Peterson

• • •

Jurors’ Choice

Exhibition: Ride the Wind: The Story of Hang Gliding (April, 2000 – March, 2001)
Institution: Museum of Flight, Seattle, Washington
Writer: Cory Graff, Exhibits Research and Development Manager
Editor: Hollis Palmer, PR and Marketing Director

Brief Description: From the earliest bamboo, plastic, and packing tape backyard inventions to today’s super-light titanium high-flyers, Ride the Wind explored the interesting and sometimes strange world of this special breed of pilots who fly without a motor. The exhibition utilized artifacts and videos as well as twelve actual aircraft, and also allowed visitors to experience what it feels like to fly a hang glider in two flight simulators.

Stratus Bowsprit VB
Was the Stratus well loved? It depends on whom you talk to. Some say, “That glider was my Shelby Cobra, my P-51 Mustang” while others lament, “They should all be destroyed or burned!” The Stratus was a radical new flexible wing tip glider touted to make smooth and stable turns. But some flyers say the words “tricky” and “slippery” are more appropriate.

There are believers: “Beautifully designed and built. I have yet to fly a more agile glider.”

And non-believers: “Landings were all bad or total luck.”

One thing can be said for sure, it stirred up emotions:

The Stratus was art. But like art, she didn’t appeal to everyone. She had a dark, foreboding side. Oh, but I loved her looks and I was fascinated by her reputation. ‘If I only owned her,’ I thought, ‘my life would be sublime.’ God, she was beautiful, but those looks could kill. I soon learned that I wasn’t man enough for her. She delighted in humiliating me in public. She exposed me for what I was. Years later as I look back through the fog of my scarred psyche, I’m grateful that she spared my life.
—Jon Dawkins

Jurors’ Comments:
The use of a surprising and thought-provoking question, not just a rhetorical one, seemed a good way to grab the visitor with the first line of text, so often the most important line if visitors are going to continue reading. There is a nice breakdown of text into short paragraphs for easier reading. The selection of content is excellent for concrete, punchy, and memorable bits of information. I especially like the use of contrasting points of view in the believer and non-believer quotes. Patterson Williams

• • •

Jurors’ Choice

Exhibition: Pastime and Pleasure
Institution: The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Writer: Diana Johnson
Editor: Elizabeth Sovik

Brief description: Pastime and Pleasure was developed for the annual Educators’ Evening, an open-house event attended by nearly 500 teachers. Teachers searched the permanent collection galleries for five works of art from a variety of traditions, each evoking a strong sense of place. At each work of art they collected an information sheet, written for a student audience, to use with a lesson plan on the topic they received upon arrival at the event. Besides introducing teachers to the full range of the Institute’s permanent collection, the goal of this project was to provide teachers with written materials that balance new information about the works of art with prompts for thoughtful looking. The complete unit is available online at

Marc Chagall
Russian, 1887-1985
The Poet with the Birds, 1911
Oil on canvas

A man lies peacefully under a tree. Surrounded by the bright colors of a warm summer day, he escapes into a carefree world of his own. “The Poet with the Birds,” the title tells us. What might a poem inspired by this moment under the tree be about?

Marc Chagall was a young man living in Paris, France, when he painted this picture. The city’s busy shop windows and rich museums inspired him to paint and paint. But he filled his pictures with memories of the world he had left behind in the countryside of Russia, not scenes of Paris.

Take this scene of the poet, for example. The sun, the trees, and the birds could be from anywhere. But the poet’s tunic shirt and loose trousers are the dress of a Russian peasant. Do you get the feeling that Chagall spent many afternoons this way himself?

Marc Chagall was a painter, not a poet, but he saw similarities between the two occupations. Poets search for those few right words to create the feeling of a particular moment. Painters use colors to do the same thing. “Color is the blood of the painter, as poetry is the blood of the poet,” Chagall once said. How are the colors of this painting like the words of a poem?

Jurors’ Comments:

Texts that ask questions can seem patronizing, or like something from a school field trip, but this work transcends that genre. Although the writing is simple, the ideas explored are not (e.g. similarity between painting and poetry). For every question the text asks, it gives something good back (contrast between Paris and Russia, the quote about “blood of a painter,” etc.) Also, the questions are not pointlessly open ended, but really make you look again at the painting. Joshua Dudley

While the style of this label is conversational, it’s actually full of useful information about the artist and the work in question. More importantly, the text opens the door to a more emotional and psychological connection with the painting, without assuming a preachy or overbearing tone. The artist becomes a real human being dealing with common human experiences in his work, and I want to learn and see more. Brian Peterson

• • •

Jurors’ Choice

Exhibition: Jellies: Living Art (Opened April 8, 2002)
Institution: Monterey Bay Aquarium
Writers/Editors: Elizabeth Labor, Melissa Hutchinson, Jaci Tomulonis

Brief Description: Jellies: Living Art explores the ways in which jellies and the marine world have kindled the artistic imagination. From sea nettles to flower heats, sea angels to moon jellies, diverse drifters share a museum-like setting with paintings, sculpture and other works of art. Features artists include Dale Chihuly, David Hockney, Pegan Brooke and others. The exhibit focuses on three main concepts: the variety of jellies’ shapes and sizes, their mesmerizing rhythm and movement, and the myriad colors and patterns they display. Gallery walls come alive with poetry and quotes from Pablo Neruda, Jimi Hendrix, Terry Tempest Williams and others.

Rhythm and Movement
Jellies were the first to move,
and today they move in myriad ways.

Prehistoric jellies were the first animals to swim
free of the seafloor. Today’s jellies possess
an impressive repertoire of swimming styles—
some pulse peacefully like living lava lamps;
others beat fast and furiously. Still others row
with oarlike paddles or throb forever upside-down.

Jellies travel up and down, back and
forth, in and out of seasons

For jellies, being on the move might mean
migrating long distances every day—from dark
depths to food-rich surface waters. Other jellies
travel horizontally, pulsing across lakes and
lagoons. Some even travel by season—swarms
of moon jellies usually appear here in the fall.

I spin on the circle of wave upon wave of the sea.

— Pablo Neruda

Jurors’ Comments:
Lots of alliteration here. The emphasis in this text on sensual and poetic words and phrases seemed well suited to the sensual approach of the exhibit. The headline is welcoming, to the point, and short. I also thought the headline would help visitors decide if they wanted to read more. In the nice short paragraphs the similes may help visitors notice things about jellies and remember them. I particularly enjoyed the lava lamp simile. Patterson Williams

Pablo Neruda is a hard act to follow, but this label manages to bridge the gap between poetry and museum writing quite nicely. It was obviously written by people who are conscious of the power of language to create images in our minds; phrases like “pulse peacefully,” “throb forever upside down,” and “dark depths” particularly resonate with me. I also like the sense of rhythm in the words. I want to read them slowly, linger on certain delicious passages, then move on, almost like a jellyfish floating on a current. . . . Brian Peterson

• • •

Jurors’ Choice

Exhibition: Inner Expressions: German Art from the Fort Wayne Museum of Art Permanent Collection and the Pamela and James Elesh Collection
Institution: Fort Wayne Museum of Art
Writer: Mary M. Schroeder
Editors: Jack Cantey, Robert Schroeder, Patricia Watkinson, Sachi Yanari-Rizzo

Brief Description: Inner Expressions consists of twenty-one prints and drawings produced between 1907 and 1948 by seven of the most innovative artists in Germany at that time. Barlach, Beckmann, Feininger, Heckel, Kollwitz, Nolde and Dix are the seven artists included in this exhibition.

[introductory panel copy]
This is not happy art. These were not happy times. During the time period represented by these works (1907-1948) the Germans fought and lost two world wars. The economy failed to stabilize between wars so the German people faced fifteen years of inflation, depression and poverty in addition to the haunting memories of World War I. Most artists living and working in Germany during this period considered it vitally important to document their feelings. Their sorrow and confusion is the true subject of this exhibition.

Art in which there is less emphasis on what the artist sees and more emphasis placed on the subjective, or individual, feelings of the artist is called “expressionistic” art. Even though it is easy to recognize people and places in these works, their emotional content overpowers the subject. The artists represented here describe feelings that are private and public and political. The challenge to anyone with an opposing viewpoint is immediately apparent.

On July 19, 1937 the Degenerate Art exhibition opened in Munich, Germany. Its purpose was to clarify for the German public exactly what type of art was unacceptable or “un-German.” Most of the artists shown here were included in that exhibit. Degenerate art was considered to be so far beyond what was acceptable that it had become non-art.

Today these artists are recognized not only for their contributions to the history of modern art but for their courage and determination. The darkness that fills their work is not self-indulgent or contrived. In addition to being publicly ridiculed, they were fired from their jobs as teachers and labeled insane. Their artworks were destroyed. They were threatened with prison, or worse, if they did not stop creating their “non-art.” No, this is certainly not happy art, but it is a true testament to the power of the creative impulse and the human spirit.

Jurors’ Comments:

This is a long text, but it starts out so strikingly that I felt compelled to continue reading, and probably would even read the whole thing on a wall in an exhibit setting. Sentences are short and to the point. Each paragraph rewards the visitor with a powerful idea that will serve as a reference when viewing the show. Particularly good to see is writing about art that uses no adjectives to describe the art itself, only the artists, and every adjective is backed up by a fact.  ~ Joshua Dudley