6.9. Texts

The quantity and style of texts integrated in the installations of an exhibition is a much-disputed issue. On the diagram below, relationships of objects and related pieces of information are represented. Dean (1994) shows two extremes: in one, there is little explanation; the exhibition is made up of objects only(An example of this type of presentation is the showcase storage, where, in many cases, objects are designated with their inventory number only. In private life, with the so-called “festive room” of peasant dwellings, the room that was only used on the most important days of life – childbirth, weddings and funerals – a similar presentation of a large number of objects is customary.) According to the other extreme, a lot of information is presented, with little to see and experience. The average exhibition is between these two poles and hopefully realises a synergy of information and objects. The essence of the exhibition has always been the presentation of things, not texts.

A diagram showing the interrelationships of objects and information at an exhibition.

6.1. graph: Theoretical model of the interrelationships of objects and information. Different exhibition genres will assume a different place on this scale, depending on the quantity of information included. (Diagram based on Dean, 1994)

Here are two lists of text types that appear in exhibitions, as listed by Dean (1994) and reconceptualised by Vasáros (2010).[20]

Main Header

Header

Title

Text for parts of the exhibition

Subtitle

Showcase text

Label of objects (data only or brief description.)

Main Header

Introductory text

Title

Description of a group of objects or a theme

Subtitle

Showcase text

Label of objects (data only or brief description.)

6.1. table: Hierarchy of exhibition texts.

Table 6.2 below offers suggestions about different text types based on the work of authors listed in the “Further reading” section. Different authors suggest different text lengths which imply different ideas about the amount of information visitors are able and willing to read while walking through the halls. In any case, excessive descriptions should be avoided (we will show an example of this). Letter sizes may differ, depending on the space the exhibition is situated in (the small entrance hall of a historic monument and a large visitor reception area require and tolerate different letter sizes, of course.) Readability is an important issue, especially with labels underneath the objects. (We always have to consider senior visitors with limited eyesight.)

Main Header  (letter size:5–7,5 cm)

The title of the exhibition catches attention and identifies the display. It will appear in the first line of the text on posters and banners. It should be short (1 – 10 words) and give some orientation about the theme and quality of the exhibition, as well as define the mood of the display. Sometimes style is more important than content, as it conveys most of the information we want to transmit.

Subtitle (of the Main header):  100–120 points

It is customary today to add a subtitle, especially if the main header is ambiguous. Avoid it if possible, because it diverts the attention of visitors. If you decide to use one, keep it to 10-25 words and provide relevant information. Content and style are both important.

Introductory text

It may be concise (50-60 words), or longer, maximum 200 words. (An extreme example: an introductory text of 525 words, seen in a county museum. It was placed in a narrow corridor, creating a bottleneck with visitors reading it.) The intro text should be concise and informative, divided into paragraphs of about 75 words each. This is a basic statement about the exhibition, explaining its content and major message.

Description of a group of objects or showcases: 30–40 point, or 24–32 points

We use this type of text if the exhibition is divided into parts („chapters”). This text shows the organising principles of the group and its special features. It should not be too long (75-100 words). It may start with a pun or catchphrase, but it should contain authentic, research-based information.

Label underneath the objects or identifying tag  / description card: 18–22 points

Two types of texts fall within this category. First, the explanatory text that contains a lot of information about the object or small group of objects. This should be relatively short (usually 10-20 words, but no more than 60–80 words) and take up one paragraph.

The second type of text, the description card, has no space limits as it must contain all the information available about the object.

6.2. table: Suggestions about the size, content and style of the exhibition text.

Text panels attached to the wall in a museum.

6.28. picture: An introductory text that visitors will find frightening. Neither its length, size or colour, nor its typography motivates us to read it. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Museum showcase with text on its base.

6.29. picture: An interesting solution: the title of the exhibition and the label are both placed on a showcase of the Wellcome Collection in London. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Information panel with long text and a video screen.

6.30. picture: The badly designed introductory text of this exhibition is too long to read. Coming closer, we realise that the right hand column is the English translation. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Objects in a showcase and their labels.

6.31. picture: The label under the objects: Lion shaped aquamanile from the Danube region. Only experts can understand what this means. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

How can you make an exhibition text more interesting?

–        Ask questions! Create an appetite for information, feed the imagination – but also provide the answers!

–        Use everyday language!  Avoid the dialect and special words of researchers!

–        Quote! Use quotations that are well-known (and place them in new contexts), or provide relevant quotes that underpin your message.

–        Use puns! Rephrase slogans or catch phrases of advertisements!

–        Use analogues! Any well-known statement helps visitors connect to new knowledge.

–        Activate! Ask visitors to do something, because action involves them in the world of the exhibition more intensively than reading and viewing.

Be careful about the frequency of using the above, because visitors may easily become saturated and loose interest.

Characteristics of a good text:

–        It formulates the message in a concise, accurate manner;

–        It is a delight to read. It uses similes and metaphors;

–        It is easy to read because its lettering is clear and large enough;

–        It catches attention both visually and with its words;

–        It is interesting – it tells visitors what they have always wanted to know.

Museologist-researchers assume that it is beneficial for visitors to learn about the theme of an exhibition as much as possible. However, if we consider that many children (and, consequently, many adults) suffer from reading and comprehension deficits, we should limit written information to the most important facts and descriptions.

There are cases when visitors do not find the information they need to understand an exhibit, but text overload is much more frequent. At one of the best exhibitions of the Hungarian Museum of Natural History, panels and labels contained forty pages of text in total. It is not convenient to read such a long story while standing. In one of the tasks at the end of this chapter, you can see how much time it requires to read and comprehend information at an exhibition.

Translation of labels and information texts

The translations of texts for museum displays, catalogues, etc. is extremely important for our foreign visitors. “A poorly translated text is immediately noticed by foreign visitors and immediately gives a very bad impression (of the whole exhibition and the museum itself!). Making a good translation involves more than a knowledge of the relevant language(s). Additional explanation may be needed to make things clear for the foreign reader. For example, “It happened during the 1896 Millenary Celebrations” may make sense to most Hungarians, but most foreigners will not know what that means. An ‘edited’ translation would read something like: “It happened during the 1896 Millenary Celebrations marking the 1000th anniversary of the arrival of the Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin.” It appears that many exhibition organisers tend not to think of such matters or have no financial means to secure the services of good translators.

A museum showcase and inscription above.

6.32. picture: This arrangement contains all the mistakes imaginable for an exhibition text. The well-lit showcase is in contrast with the text panel above. The colour of the panel is similar to that of the background – a feature that makes it difficult for visitors to even spot it. The text is inappropriately designed. It is written on two panels, badly attached to each other; therefore the end of one of the sentences is hardly visible. For visitors without a medical degree, it is difficult to comprehend the text. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Two small text panels at the feet of a dinosaur.

6.33. picture: Badly placed text panel that distorts the view of the leaping animal. Positive aspect: the label clearly belongs to the exhibit and cannot be associated with another one. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)



[20] The rank order of different text types was slightly rearranged by Vasáros, 2010, whose work served as a source for this table. Cf. Vasáros, (2010): Kiállító-tér ? Múzeumi tárlatok kézikönyve. (The exhibition space – A manual of museum exhibitions.) Szentendre, Szabadtéri Néprajz Múzeum (publication of the Szentendre Open Air Ethnography Museum. (In Hungarian).