The joy of text

In Museums on November 10, 2015 at 3:20 pm

Someone told me recently ‘I can’t write.’

She can write – I’ve received emails from her and I once even saw her use a pen. I think she meant she doesn’t think she can write. I don’t believe this for a second.

I don’t consider myself very (at all) good at drawing. But I can still pick up a pencil and have a go at making a mark. That doesn’t make me an artist, but I can draw.

The same is true for writing, I think. While we might not be writers, many of us write every day – much more often than we pick up a pencil and draw. Updating a facebook status, making a shopping list, emailing a friend or colleague.

We write more and more text digitally today, of course, which means that when we write we are actually often typing on a physical or virtual, rather than writing. And maybe that perpetuates the myth that we’re not writers, but actually typists.

We’re constantly learning about how we write text, honing our skills all the time, without even noticing what we’re doing. I teach a course about museum text – I’m part way through a series of workshops about writing display copy for a museum which is about to embark on writing a whole new gallery. It can be a good time to stand back and look again at the process of how we put text together in the heritage sector and who we are actually writing for. It’s interesting to take museum people through the process of museum writing. The majority of copy is generated digitally, of course, but visitors will see it in a whole range of different outputs – from panels and labels to touchscreens, multimedia guides, projected on the wall and sewn into the carpet.

As part of the course we review lots of examples of text from other museums, which I’ve gathered together over the years. It’s all rather fun as we get to be (constructively) critical of other people’s work and, ultimately, come up with a ‘voice’ for the a project.

While I am passionate about words and text, I find that sometimes when I’m in a cultural institution I find it difficult to switch off my professional brain – I have to remember that I’m at play, not at work. Rather than enjoying an interpretive experience I find myself looking at interpretation, words, font, lighting, production techniques and the like, rather than immersing myself in the experience. And in the text. I should be bathing in the words, not judging them.

And so, from here on, I am going to try and embrace the joy of text as a treat. Words need to be a treat, rather than a work commodity.

We’re all writers. Never say you can’t write. Power to the words.


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