Developing Effective Family Guides

This handout was part of a presentation on creating effective family guides at the 2006 National Art Education Association.

By Vas Prabhu, then Deputy Director of Interpretation and Education, Peabody-Essex Museum, Kris Bergquist, School and Family Programs Coordinator Hood Museum of Art

This packet includes:

  • Contact information and notes from conversations with 11 museum education colleagues from around the country
  • A list of helpful family guide and family learning resources
  • Tips for Label Writers
  • Writing Family Guides: A Checklist

What’s Inside Fenway Court Family Guide – shares Isabella Gardner’s story and is focused in the courtyard area where there are fewer objects to worry about safety, have a little more freedom, and room for interaction. Its focus is the permanent collection. Available on the web.

Small Wonders Family Guide – the aim is to focus on the smaller things in cabinets and places that tend to be overlooked, based on seeing tour behavior where kids are wanting to investigate smaller pieces. Available in Spanish. Available on the web.

Also offer a variety of Looking Together activity guides that are produced less expensively and are more temporary. They are often created for special exhibitions, family programs, etc…. (Examples: Love is in the Air, Riders, Hold Your Horses!, and Awaken the Dragons Hunt).

Johnetta Tinker, Director of Community Programs, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Massachusetts

Some general thoughts shared by Johnetta about family guides:

  • Family guides are a useful tool for people who are afraid that they do not have enough knowledge about art history; we hope to help them engage with a work of art
  • One of the goals is that people will use the same looking, questioning and analyzing techniques when looking at other art. The family guide helps them gain a sense of comfort when looking at art in an art museum.
  • To engage people, use questions that connect to prior knowledge of what they know about themselves, have no right or wrong answers, can be answered by looking at what they see, make sure they are noticing certain things, give information, make sure they are comfortable and happy, welcoming
  • Use the activities with partnering groups, students (multi-visit programs with seven Boston community schools where they come once/month during the school year) and afterschool programs
  • Testing is done with museum education staff, museum staff (not in education department), teen associates (two teens who are hired each year to work in the education department), and with partnership school groups (part of the multiple-visit program)
  • Uses the thoughts of the teen associates, who have a fresh view, come up with themes, objects to fit themes (education staff works out the logistics with them, making sure there is a flow, a sequence, that no objects are in front of doorways, etc…)
  • In addition to the family guides, the museum has special family programs throughout the year

Jenna Madison, Coordinator of Museum Interpretation, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA
Julia Forbes, Head of Museum Interpretation, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA

Take a Look at American Art Family Guide

Take a Look at Decorative Arts Family Guide
(an architecture family guide will be available soon)
Designed for children ages 7-10, small booklet format

Some general thoughts shared by Jenna about family guides:

  • The museum recently opened the Greene Family Education Center and Greene Family Learning Gallery; the family guides are used as tools to encourage families to go into the museum’s permanent collection galleries.
  • Even with the new educational spaces, the family guides are still something that families reach and look for; they help to engage children in the museum.
  • The American Art and Decorative Arts guides were recently rewritten. Some changes include less text and making sure the language is straightforward and clear, avoiding yes-no questions, choosing objects that appeal to children, creating activities that relate back to looking at the works of art, changing activities to make them less writing-focused and more looking-focused (i.e. changing a list-making activity into a treasure hunt-finding activity), giving visual explanations of terms (i.e. realism or romanticism) as well as word explanations, and including
  • activities that can be done after leaving the museum (a drawing project or a simple cut and glue project).
  • Changes were made to accommodate realities of kids not being able to stay focused in galleries for a large amount of time. Also, knowing that some families are using the guides to occupy the child while the parents are looking at what they want to look at.
  • Did testing with summer camp groups and observed and interviewed families using the previous family guides.

Libby Cluett, Public Programs Manager, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

Movement: Action in Art Family Guide
The guide was created in collaboration with students at the Applied Learning Academy: two 6th grade students, three 7th grade students, and one 8th grade student. It was available when the museum reopened (after a period of reconstruction and renovation) in 2001; was used for four years and is now retired.
They also have an Art Walking in the Cultural District family guide that focuses on outdoor sculpture. Available on the web.

Some general thoughts shared by Libby about family guides:

  • When working in collaboration with kids, it is important to define the roles of what the kids will do and what they will not do.
  • Writing was not easy for all of them and it was hard to create a document that sounded as if it had one voice. However, they did a very good job critiquing and advising if you gave them the options. They were able to articulate what they liked best and why if they had concrete examples. They were also able to give good feedback on vocabulary (education staff found that the language they used often went over kids’ heads so they needed to be more clear).
  • Working together was not easy for the students; kids at this age have significantly different social dynamics and developmental skills from year to year. The sixth graders were the most enthusiastic about the project. The 8th grade student was also enthusiastic, but had a busy schedule. The seventh graders were a little tough because they were cliquish, something that often happens at this age.
  • Creating guides that were fun was important (example of fun: having clues that you would need to use to find the next work of art).
  • Kids can grasp a theme (such as animals in art) better than a greatest hits approach.
  • Kids were able to test activities with their class and get feedback; they also presented their project at the Texas Association of Museums conference, which was a great success.
  • Printed family guides are not as flexible due to art objects moving in galleries, so much of family resources is spent on programs and handson art carts; interested in using technology for future guides.

Christine Minkler, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

Art Cards for Families are an envelope with 12 cards (image on one side and information/questions on the other side) that use works in the permanent collection, designed for children ages 8-12.

Some general thoughts shared by Christine about family guides:

  • Have gotten incredibly good reviews from visitors who used them
  • A challenge is that a large batch was printed at one time and was meant to last for several years. However, after one year, galleries were reinstalled and cards had to be removed from the pack.
  • Future guides (done in the next year), will be less expensive and have a three-month shelf life so there is more flexibility.
  • The museum also offers classes and programs; they have a strong studio art class program

 Ruth Slavin, Curator of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Some general thoughts shared by Ruth about family guides:

  • After hearing from visitors that they are taking the guides home because at family programs they are spending time doing other activities, changes were made so they could be used at home.
  • One change was making sure the featured artwork was depicted so a discussion, or a follow-up discussion, could take place at home. Another change was highlighting strategies for exploring so that during the course of two or three guides, there have been several different strategies suggested. The guides turn into sort of a short, fun training for the adults in how to look at art or different things you can do with art.

Diane Kidd, Program Assistant, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.

The Hirshhorn family guide is an envelope filled with 15 art cards. It uses the permanent collection and is designed for children ages 6-8.

Some general thoughts shared by Diane about family guides:

  • The guide is available at the information desk, but families are offered it by the visitor services staff or they can ask for it; it is too costly to have out to take like a brochure. Docents and teachers use the guide too.
  • The guide was created because a Saturday morning program held once a month (Young at Art) for 2 hours for 20 families became very popular and was always overenrolled. So, the guide was created to offer an alternate activity, as well as for the many tourists that visit.
  • When developing the guide, adults in family groups were randomly asked what they would want in a family guide and the top request was more information about the art object, the artist, and a way to create a dialogue. The kids asked just wanted to see lots of things.
  • When cards were written (but before the final printing), the activities were tested with teachers, museum educators, and school groups.
  • Some of the goals for the cards include: parents and children having a dialogue; open-ended questions that cannot be answered with a yes or no; including things that they could find; asking why questions; having the kids use imagination with components like “tell a story”; asking
  • questions that connect to their own lives; and having a good time together while learning skills that can be used when looking at art in museums.
  • When writing the cards, Diane was influenced the most by teaching experiences. Also used VTS (visual thinking strategies) research when choosing works (for example, choosing works that lend themselves to narratives since beginning art viewers often create narratives, or stories,
  • when looking at art). Paintings and sculptures also were chosen over installations since many times those pieces are more temporary.
  • Have found that cards work well because families can create their own tours, pass out the cards to everyone in the group, etc….
  • Got around the problem of objects moving in galleries by just coding the cards as blue for inside objects and green for outside objects.

Rebecca Edwards, Education Specialist, Family Audiences, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California
Art Detective Cards, an envelope and card guide that focuses on the permanent collection. Available in English and Spanish.
Some general thoughts shared by Rebecca about family guides:
  • The cards are a little bigger than a baseball card (about 2 by 4 inches); keeping it small gives it a playful attitude. They also fit in small hands and back pockets.
  • The format is a seek-and-find approach where they see a detail and then find the entire art object. By flipping the card over, visitors can find brief information and questions.
  • The goal is to slow down and spend time with works of art; based on observations visitors are doing what is intended with the cards. They are slowing down and looking at an object, talking, looking more closely at it.
  • Works best for children ages 5 and up (collection gets a little challenging for younger children although they do have a storytelling program for 3- year-old children)
  • Written for a 3rd or 4th grade reading level – kids can read on their own as a more independent activity. And, if they are used by adults and children together, adults can easily translate (especially important if children are not at a reading age).
  • Families tend to visit the museum on weekends and because of the traffic and location, they usually spend many hours there (not a drop-in-for-a-little-bit environment); most are multi-generational groups with kids of varying ages.
  • This spring, they will be evaluating the art detective cards with observations and interviews.
  • Sees family guide as part of a menu of programs, knowing that you cannot meet everybody’s need through one program. Instead, it is better to have a something for everybody approach with all the programs, offering options (i.e. storytelling, self guide, guided tour, etc…).
  • Has observed that a specific kind of family does the self guides – those that are intense and kid oriented, some families do not want to commit to that kid-oriented approach. The families that thrive with the family guides are the ones who want to have an educational experience for
  • their kids – but may not always know how to leverage their experience at the art museum into an educational experience and need some help.
  • Self-guides offer a way to reach a lot of people inexpensively. There are many who take the guides as souvenirs and because of that, some museums only give them when families approach or request them However, the Getty has decided accessibility is a critical issue so they are available at all times outside the Family Room and at the Family Cart (with the exception of weekday mornings when school tours are happening).

Lisa Levinson, Senior Editor, Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado

The museum does not have a printed family guide, but instead has backpacks, artstops, reading corners, discovery libraries, pullout labels, and a Just for Fun Center. However, it does have a website, which is similar to a printed family guide, that allows people to explore objects from the museum’s permanent collection, make projects, and find out about related books and websites. It is designed for children ages 8-10. In a Families & Art Museums report, Patterson Williams, Dean of Education and Master Teacher for Asian Art, said about the site: “We didn’t care if they used the website but never came to the museum. It’s not to sell the museum. It’s to extend their museum visit into their family life, into their schools and homes.”
Some general thoughts shared by Lisa about family guide writing:

(See attached document, titled tips for label writers, that was originally distributed at the NAEA Pre-Conference 2004. It offers advice on writing general labels and can relate to writing for family audiences).

  • All the tips for label writers would apply, but when writing for kids it is especially important to make it interesting, funny, and fun; it is an opportunity to take more chances with writing styles.
  • Important to make sure that the information shared appeals to kids.
  • It works well to make a bridge to something they know, already exists in their own knowledge.

Alice Schwarz, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Alice Schwarz, who has worked for 23 years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in various divisions and is currently co-running school programs, recently wrote Gilbert Stuart, Making Faces, which was awarded an honorable mention in the educational resources category of the 2005 AAM Museum Publications Design Competition for institutions with budgets of $500,000 or more. Written for 5-12 year olds. Available on the web and is part of an interactive section that offers an online gallery tour, activities, timeline, and an animated story of the artist.
Some general thoughts shared by Alice about family guides:
  • Because of the large number of visitors, family guides are rarely available in the galleries. They can be requested at the information desk
  • Family guides are done for specific exhibitions if appropriate for the age in terms of content, also in terms of logistics and security (i.e. there is not room for formal group tours, so small groups can better use family guides in the space).
  • The website connection is something fairly recent so the guides can be used at the museum or at home. It makes it more interactive and exciting, as well as accessible for the family who lives in Kansas and is not coming to New York City to see the exhibition.
  • Some guides fold out to a poster, which adds to the expense, but it can be hung up at home and bridges the experience from museum to homes.
  • The guides are created to help make families independent viewers, hoping parents pay attention to what kinds of questions are being asked so when guides are not available, they have a comfort zone, some experience about how to look at art in a museum.
  • Uses works in permanent collection so they can be reused.
  • Many families request the family guides.
  • No formal evaluation, but have had the staff informally interview families using the guides. They also have family program regulars test the guides.
  • The content is often inspired by teaching experiences – what questions are asked in tours, etc… The more teaching you can do, the more you can pare down what are the best questions, best information.
  • Has found that three is the magic number of objects for a family guide – perfect amount of time to go from the information desk to any exhibition space, time to read questions and text, chat, look, and go home.
  • Tries to include images of both males and females, if applicable.
  • Three to four questions in front of each work of art is the limit (1-2 is just tip of iceberg, too many and they lose interest).
  • Ask questions that require visitors to look or think in fundamentals of art (something visual that helps them consider that concepts such as composition, color, brushstrokes are an important part of a work of art).
  • Begin with questions about what they see, the third or fourth question can be more abstract, asking them about specific aspects of the work of art and what they can tell from them. (example: in a portrait, there are books on the table next to the person and the question might be, what do those books tell them about that person?).
  • Keep the text brief and make sure that it connects with the object
  • If there are questions asked that have specific answers, make sure the answers are in the text.
  • Include the website and other ways to find information such as audio guides, books, etc…
  • Some guides include an activity, such as drawing, or a project that can be done at home using inexpensive, readily available objects; some guides have more of a question format.

 Adrienne Brusselars, Randi Korn & Associates, Inc., Washington DC
Some general thoughts shared by Adrienne about family guide evaluations:
  • Many of the studies done analyzing family guides are done by non-art museums. Randi Korn & Associates did two evaluations of family guides in 2003; Invention at Play at the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History
  • ( and a remedial evaluation of a family guide at the National Museum of the American Indian ( A remedial evaluation is one in which you are able to create a product (in this case, a guide), evaluate its effectiveness and then make changes and create a new guide. Both of the family guides are available on the museums’ websites.

Three recommended sources to find information about evaluations at museums include:

  1. This website is developed by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Learning in Out of School Environments (UPCLOSE). You can click on tools and then case studies. Many of the evaluations are about science museum projects but are often very applicable to learning in art museums too.
  2. Journal of Museum Education ( You can find out about the current issue of this publication, as well as contents of back issues.
  3. Informal Learning Experiences, Inc. ( When you click on Informal Learning Review, you can find articles that can be downloaded.
To help with writing clear and simple language, there are many resource books available. Some favorites include:
  • Exploring Art: A Student Guide to Viewing Museum Exhibitions, published by the National Museum of Women in the Arts
  • Art Speak: A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1945 to the Present and Art Spoke: A Guide to Modern Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords (1848-1944) by Robert Atkins and published by Abbeville Press
  • A Pronunciation Dictionary of Artists’ Names, revised and edited by Debra Edelstein, published by the Art Institute of Chicago
  • Key Terms in Art Craft and Design by John Skull and published by Elbrook Press
  • Any book from the Dorling Kindersley series for clear and simple explanations on many topics
  • Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum ( has recommended readings about learning in museums on their website, related to their Thinking Through Art project. Go to their education page and click on Thinking Through Art. Then, click on Resources and you will find a Reading List. Download the Reading List.
  • There are many places to find information on childhood developmental levels; a very clear explanation can be found in an article called A Guide to Childhood Development by Marla Shoemaker that was published in The Docent Educator. You can find it in Understanding Audiences, Volume 2, Number 1, Autumn 1992. For information on ordering back issues, go to
  • Minda Borun, Museum Solutions and Director of Research & Evaluation, The Franklin Institute, has done a lot of work on family learning within exhibitions at science museums and many of her findings relate to family learning in all museums. The publication Family Learning in Museums: The PISEC Perspective by Minda Borun is available through the Association of Science-Technology Centers (
  • Denver Art Museum ( has reports available about families and art museums, enriching visitor experiences, and the museum’s interpretive project. Click on Resources and you can download the reports.
For more information, please contact Lisa Levinson in the Denver Art Museum Publications Department,


Write for people who are reading on their feet.

  • Be brief.
  • 50–70 words for object labels, 150 words or less for section labels
  • To increase readability:
  • Chunk into short paragraphs.Use bullets.
  • Bold or underline main ideas.
  • Repeat yourself.
  • Write at a 6- to 8th-grade reading level.

Use lively language.

  • Avoid abstractions.
  • Get specific.
  • Use figures of speech.
  • Write like people talk.
  • Seek out and destroy passive constructions.
  • Think twice before using forms of the verb “to be” (is, are, was, or were).
  • Use quotes.

Anticipate roadblocks.

  • Answer obvious questions.
  • Address misconceptions.
  • Deal with negative reactions.

Lend them your spark.

  • Let them in on the human interest stories.
  • Surprise!
  • Have a sense of humor.
  • Share those fascinating facts.

Do more than tell facts.

  • Start with what’s visible.
  • Ask yourself, “Will this info help the visitor get more out of what’s on view?”
  • Instead of asking “What do visitors need to know,” try “What kind of experience will visitors get from this label?”
  • Try to get ‘em to stop and look closely.
  • Base your labels on observations.
  • Guide, but leave room for discovery.
  • Teach skills or share information that visitors can practice on their own.
  • Awaken curiosity.
  • Provoke controversy, encourage discussion, stimulate independent thought.


  • Don’t write labels that build off each other.
  • Don’t use specialized terms without defining them.
  • Don’t tell your visitors what they think.
  • Don’t make value judgments.
  • Don’t refer to things that aren’t on display.
  • Don’t describe what visitors can see for themselves.
  • Don’t write to hear yourself write.
  • Don’t write for your colleagues.
  • Don’t ask questions without answers.

Some things to ask yourself when you’re reviewing a label.

  • Is it clear?
  • Is it concise? Does every word and every sentence contribute to the meaning?
  • Is it lively and interesting?
  • Is its tone friendly, or at least not intimidating?
  • Are specialized terms defined or made clear from context?
  • Is this how you would talk about this object to a novice relative or friend?
  • If you had no background in the subject and this were the first label you read in the exhibition, would you understand it?
  • Does this label answer the basic questions a visitor might have about the object?
  • Will this information help the visitor look more closely at the object or get more out of it?
  • Does the information start with what’s visible and move on to less tangible facts?
  • Would this label provoke discussion? Awaken curiosity? Inspire?
  • Does the label feel relevant—connected to the world outside your institution?
  • Does the label encourage independent thought?

Vivian Ladd, freelance museum educator

  • First, take a look at the objects. Think about what you see. What objects are most arresting?  What do you notice about them. Think about which objects would be most interesting to children. Think about the associations you make while looking at the objects. Are they historical/contextual?  process-related? Design-related?  Personal? Do the objects provoke an intellectual or emotional response? What do you think you would need to know to fully appreciate them?
  • Read printed material about the objects. Read label copy, the related exhibition catalogue, information in the registrars files about the objects. Take notes. Jot down major ideas., i.e. historical/contextual information, important information about the artist’s life, the process used to create the piece, information about what the artist is trying to say.
  • Try to crystallize the major ideas about the objects into 4 or 5 categories.
  • Walk through the installation. What objects catch your attention? Consider how visitors will move through the show. Think about the way the objects interact with one another. Which objects would you like to spend some time upon? Which can be skipped?
  • Outline your traffic pattern. Which objects (rooms) will you need to deal with first? Next?  and so on?
  • Consider which objects raise which major ideas. Begin sketching out a logical pattern, not only of objects explored but ideas covered.
  • Remember that a good lesson plan of any kind builds. Begin with the concrete and the simple and build in complexity. Allow your audience to learn a fact, relate it to something else, learn another, begin to make comparisons, etc. Try to organize your choice of objects and the knowledge that you impart in logical steps.
  • Return to each object and consider how you are going to get your audience to LOOK at it.  Jot down the visual elements of the piece. Think about composition, the way your eye travels through the object, what it represents, what associations it draws to mind, how it was made, etc.
  • Do not lecture. You want your audience to discover for themselves what every work of art is trying to communicate. As you think about how to communicate a major idea about an object, restrict yourself to providing a little information, then create some sort of activity.
  • For instance, consider dealing with process involved with an abstract expressionist painting. You could lecture and describe the evolution of action painting, the artist’s philosophy in adopting this style, and his working methods or you could provide the following information:
    • This artist wanted you to think about the fact that he painted this work. He left us lots of clues to follow the steps he took.
    • Then you might provide the following activity; Become a detective and see if you can recreate the artist’s steps:

      • What color did the artist apply first? What came next? And after that?
      • What kind of a brush did the artist use?  In the background?  For the touches of black?

      Activities can range from looking questions to games.  Feel free to read activity sheets from a variety of sources and children’s activity books to get ideas.

      • Once you have sketched out some ideas for looking questions and approach imparting the major ideas, begin writing. Start with a very rough draft. You will not be able to fit all your ideas into the five panels of a Family Guide. Since you will have to begin editing early, it is a waste of time to flesh out and refine each of your ideas, only to scrap them due to space constraints.
      • Consider how your approach will fit into the space of the Family Guide. Are some sections impossibly long? Are you being repetitive anywhere?  Can you be more concise and efficient?
      • Sometimes you will need to provide textual information. However, too much text is overwhelming for a parent with restless children in a room filled with breakables. Try to vary the amount of text and images in the Family Guide so that no one section appears too text heavy.
      • Walk through the installation with your rough draft. Do your looking questions help your audience engage with the objects? Is information provided when it is most helpful? Is there a logical sequence to the whole?
      • Edit.
      • Review the notes from your research. Are you covering all the bases? Does your Family Guide include the most pertinent information? Does it allow families to discover for themselves what is special about the objects they are exploring?
      • Edit.
      • Walk through the galleries again.  Double check any changes. Check locations, titles, dates, and other information for accuracy.
      • Edit.
      • Ask a colleague to do the Family Guide in the galleries. Ask for feedback.
      • Edit.
      • Have the appropriate curator read the Family Guide for accuracy.
      • Edit.
      • Have a colleague and the editor read the Family Guide for grammatical accuracy.
      • Edit.
      • Send the Family Guide to the designer.
      • Review the overall spacing. Is there a nice variety of text and image? Are cues and direction icons accurately represented?
      • Edit.
      • Send to printer.
      • Enjoy.