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Museum Speak


While I was writing my guide to interpretive writing about art, I started a list of “museum speak” – words that are common among museum workers but often confound the public. (Read this guide online now in your current browser or download a printable pdf.)

The list never made it into the guide, but I’m posting it here. It’s only a partial list, I’m certain there are many more “museum speak” words. Help me complete the list and we’ll all have a guide to words we shouldn’t use when we write. What words would you add?


  • Procure
  • Obtain
  • Accession
  • Acquisition
  • Provenance
  • Depict
  • Object
  • Render
  • Construct
  • Genre
  • Monumentality
  • Academic
  • Modernity
  • Iconography: Annunciation, Deposition, Ascension, Bodhisattva and many others
  • Masterpiece
  • Hommage
  • Circa
  • Trompe l’oeil
  • School of … Follower of … Attributed to …
  • Linear perspective
  • Medium: gouache, intaglio, silver gelatin print, and many others
  • Ancient regime (and a million other opaque period terms)
  • Donor portrait
  • Document
  • Docent
  • Preparator
  • Installation
  • Modality
  • Collatoral
  • The verbs: priviledge, appropriate, reference

And here’s an interesting twist: the term “engagement” was suggested by several people. I don’t consider “engagement” a word we should not write for our visitors to read. But engagement is a big buzzword in our field, now and in the recent past. Are we sick of it now? Did we always dislike it? And at the risk of getting off on a tangent, what’s wrong with engaging our visitors?

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