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Creating Interpretive Text

Interpretive text are words used to explain the meaning behind museums, collections, or objects. Museums use collections to convey meaning, and an immediate way to interpret museum collections is through 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.

Consider an object in a museum without any interpretive text. Museum visitors will project their own meaning onto this object, drawing upon their 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

Interpretive text should be clear and succinct. Most visitors will not want to read a label or panel of more than 100 words. The text should be split into short paragraphs.

In addition to clarity, labels should also have personality and rhythm, which will be favourable to the visitor’s imagination and pique their interest.

Norfolk Record Office have created a guide for writing interpretative text that includes examples text length and formats for item labels

Before you begin writing, remember:

  • Objects are relevant or interesting because of the people who have used or continue to use them. You should ensure that there is a human presence in your interpretive text. People relate to other people. Utilise a human story from any object you are interpreting
  • Use text to place objects in their historical and cultural context.
  • 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 with a physical visit to the museum. Many visitors will have looked at the museum’s website before visiting. They may 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.
  • 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. Follow the 25% rule of copywriting. (Write your text, then cut out 50%. Review, then cut out another 50%. The remaining 25% should be clear and concise.)

Interpretive tone

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.

You should ensure as far as possible that the tone of your interpretation is appropriate to the content of your exhibition.

Are you interpreting something that may be divisive? Do the objects or text that make up your exhibit have the potential to be upsetting to people? Extra care should be taken be to ensure that your tone is respectful and appropriate, and that your language is inclusive.