Interpretive text is the written or spoken wording used to explain the meaning behind museums, collections or objects.
In museum work we strive to use collections to convey meaning, and interpretation is one of the most effective ways of achieving this. An immediate way to interpret museum collections, buildings, landscapes and events is through your text.
Interpretive text can give you a chance to experiment and to think outside the box. Well planned, written and placed text is a useful and effective way of encouraging your visitors to engage with your collections and the meanings behind them.
The role of interpretive text
Text should be used as a way to further the meaning of an object or a series of objects. Once interpretive text accompanies an object, the object’s meaning can change, or preconceptions about that object can be supported or challenged.
Consider an object in a museum without any interpretive text. Museum visitors will project their own meaning onto this object, drawing upon their past experience, interest, and knowledge. The role of interpretive text is to show the object within its wider context whilst still allowing the visitor to make up their own mind. This can be applied to groups of objects, historic buildings, landscapes, events, or indeed anything else you are interpreting.
Writing interpretive text
When it comes to writing text in museums or galleries, and when interpreting collections in particular, it is important to remember to be clear and succinct. Many visitors will not want to read a label or panel of more than 100 words. The text should be split into short paragraphs. [There are eighty words in this paragraph: imagine you are reading it standing up and surrounded by other people … how much attention would you be paying to it then?].
In addition to clarity, labels should also have personality and rhythm, which will be favourable to the visitor’s imagination and pique their interest.
Good label text gets straight to the point. When writing, aim more for the tone and style of a newspaper piece rather than anything too ‘dry’; the text should be interesting as well as informative. You should be ready, where possible, to utilise any human or relatable stories within your collection, and allow this to encourage the reader to keep reading.
Before you begin writing, remember:
- Objects, like museums, are relevant or interesting because of the people who have used or continue to use them. You should therefore ensure that where possible there is a human presence (be this through tone, story, or direct quotations), in the interpretive text that you use. People connect with people, utilise any human story from any object you are interpreting
- When it comes to interpretive text, the text is adding context and conveying information about the object. The emphasis should be on the object; the text should be supportive.
- Interpretive text doesn’t stop, (or start), at the museum. Many visitors will have looked at the museum’s website before visiting, and many will continue to engage with the museum in a digital capacity post-visit. You can use a digital platform like your organisation’s website to go into more detail about objects. When you do this, the overall tone and writing style should stay consistent with interpretive text used elsewhere.
- A label should make direct reference to its object. Encourage the label reader to look closely at the object and to develop their own conclusions about it, where this is appropriate.
- Do not use language meaninglessly; you do not need to state the obvious about the object. Carefully select each word you use so that either a narrative is developed, the reader has learned something, or their interest is stimulated. This will also help you to keep the text succinct.
- Use text to place objects in their historical and cultural context.
People often talk about the tone of a piece of writing; the impression it might create in its readers, or the associations and memories that this may evoke in the reader. This is especially important when attempting to engage visitors in your collections, buildings, or spaces.
It's easy to see how this is applied to the writing of interpretive text, however, interpretive tone is also communicated through non-text based interpretation; audio, oral, visual and re-creations, for example.
You should ensure as far as possible that the tone of your interpretation is appropriate to the content of your exhibition.
Are you interpreting anything that could be divisive? Do the objects or text that make up your exhibit have the potential to be upsetting to people? In this case, be extra careful to ensure that your tone is respectful and appropriate.
If it would benefit your content, are you able to use a lighter tone? This can appeal to a wider audience, particularly if you are aiming to appeal to younger or family audiences.
Museum interpretation can be incredibly effective and moving without eating into resources. This will be especially so as long as the stories within the interpretation appeal to human stories and are stimulating to the imagination.
V&A Gallery Text Guidelines- download the PDF for this fantastic resource.
V&A Blog Writing Labels and Gallery Text- for a more informal look at this in practice.
Australian Museum: Writing Text and Labels
Writing effective museum text- a superb slideshow by Helen Adams, Pitt Rivers Museum
The Association for Heritage Interpretation
Museum Practice: Text and Labels- you will need to be a member of the Museums Association to access these pages.
If you’d like to discuss any of the above further, please contact our Collections and Engagement Manager.
Thanks to Michael Hamish Glen, Principal of Touchstone Heritage Management Consultants for proofreading these pages.