Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Wall texts

Source: Museum Victoria.

Dany Louise, Writing gallery texts and wall panels: common mistakes to avoid, The Guardian, 4 August 2015

Leave out artspeak and jargon, but don’t dumb things down or patronise audiences either, says Dany Louise

I’m a professional writer. I write about arts and culture for UK national broadsheets, magazines and websites. I undertake research projects that focus on aspects of the arts infrastructure and I’ve worked in the sector for 20 years. It’s fair to say that I know about the arts – and about writing. Over this time, I’ve read huge numbers of gallery labels and panels, and it seems to me there are some obvious recurring problems.

My view is that writing technique matters (really matters) and that regardless of professional and academic debates, many gallery texts could be improved by avoiding some very common mistakes.

Here are two examples of interpretative writing from two different exhibitions in the UK:

Example one

All the works in this section have one core formal concern in common: the idea of ‘time’ (and space). X’s creative act of dissolution combines stillness and the intimation of motion, leading us to the very edge of identifiable form and playfully subverting minimalist concerns.

Example two

There has been much debate about what exactly is Englishness. We struggle to define it. I wanted to make something that looked like an ethnographic artefact that was about England. At once mystical and banal, this is the skull of a decaying maritime superpower.

What do you think of these? The top quote is an example of writing for the public by an institution funded by Arts Council England (ACE). It’s not selectively quoted; it’s a whole information panel in an exhibition. To an initiated insider with a degree or two in fine art, it described the work on show well.

Even so, I had to read it twice and think about what it meant. It seemed unnecessarily complicated, with a dense sentence structure that had to be broken into its component parts. I wondered how it would come across to a visitor who hasn’t done a degree in fine art, or who isn’t a curator or an arts professional? They would probably find it opaque and unlikely to genuinely help them engage with the work.

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