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My POW! Video

Paul Orselli of Paul Orselli Workshop—POW!—interviewed me as part of his FAQ video series with museum professionals. From that video interview I wrote up my key tips for writing exhibit text.


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Exhibit Writing Tips


Writing always has to start from our intended visitor experience, just like the design does,

Writing is one technique that has to be integrated with all the other exhibit techniques.


At the project outset I often like to think about the “Essential Question” rather than the “Big Idea.” As an example, at the Bunker Hill Museum the Essential Question is: Why do we commemorate a battle we lost?


Writing should be a narrative. You can’t treat the text as an information transfer apparatus.

The nonfiction writer Vivian Gornick talks about the Situation and the Story. The Situation is what happened, the Story is what the writer makes of it (what context to include, what point of view, what narrative approach). Exhibit writing can’t just be the Situation. It should also have a Story.


Not just clients, but the entire exhibit development team.

There’s always too much content that everyone wants to put into an exhibit. But we have to be willing to let go of some content, to give ourselves the opportunity to be intriguing, provocative. It's understandable to want to share every morsel of information we love with the visitors, but we can’t overwhelm visitors with content. If there’s too much content or data in the text, there’s no room to write it like a narrative, to let the text breath. It becomes a recitation of facts. Leave the visitor wanting to learn more.

Just because that text is on the wall, it doesn’t mean the visitor will read it. I sometimes say this to clients when they want to add more content (which always happens later in the process): If a visitor doesn’t read the text, that content doesn’t exist for that visitor. It’s our job to make the visitor want to read the text.


Writing exhibit text is iterative. Just like the design process, you want to make the major changes early (in feedback to the content outline and first draft) and not in later drafts.

  • Content outline (This can take a fair amount of time: reading all the source content and making sense of what to include and how to organize it.)

  • First draft text  (Always the most time consuming—so consider this when you create a project schedule.)

  • Second draft

  • Final text  (Consider having the client review the final text in the graphic layouts so they can see the context of the text and images and image captions.)

The hard work is to not go astray mid project: to not put more “stuff” in. I love it when team members have lots of great ideas, but not every idea can fit in the exhibit—thematically or physically. Document these ideas to be used in rotating exhibits and complementary programs.


Try to avoid the “tyranny” of details (I got that from NPS historian Martin Blatt): too many dates, names of secondary people, names of ships and ports, etc.


Try to highlight the “illuminating details,” the details that bring a story to life and keep it from being generic. At the Bunker Hill Museum we described how a colonial soldier was beheaded by a cannonball early in the battle, and how that affected his compatriots.


Use the active voice (it doesn’t mean you can’t use “is” or are”). It’s great to use active verbs, but, more importantly, visitors need to know who is doing the action. For example, don't say: "The law was enacted." Who enacted it? Say: "Congress passed the law." 


Vary your sentence structure, but try to avoid writing overly long and complicated sentences. Visitors are reading standing up. Don’t make it hard for them.

Need to tighten your text? Try this:


Get rid of prepositional phrases

Newspaper editors throughout the state wrote in favor of this law.


Newspaper editors statewide favored this law.

Replace wordy phrases . . . . . with 

As a consequence of              because

Assuming that                         if

Comply with                            follow, obey

During the period from            while, during, for, in, over, throughout, when, with

Has the ability to                     can

Stop using "utilize" instead of "use"

This is my biggest pet peeve regarding wordy phrases/words.

Why do people do this? I suppose it sounds more serious. Stop it, please.


Not only is "utilize" longer but it has a different meaning. To "utilize" something is to employ it in a way beyond its intended use. For example:

She used a bandage to bind his wound.

She utilized a bedsheet to bind his wound during the zombie apocalypse.

See the difference?



Always revise! Revise first at the macro-level then the micro.

Most important revision tip: Read your work aloud.

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