Interpretation Panels: David vs Goliath – How To Beat The Big Budget Museums

How small independents can beat the big swanky museums
How small independents can beat the big swanky museums

The following is a lighthearted and informative guest blog by Tony Jones for AIM on how to make the most of your interpretation panels and storytelling. Tony is a freelance interpretive copy writer, working with museum design companies and heritage sites worldwide. We hope that you find his tips useful!

I’m a bit of a sad git, if the truth be known. Even when I’m on holiday, I can’t help visiting museums to check out their exhibitions and interpretation. This year I’ve been on two holidays. The first was a camping trip to Anglesey in Wales with a group of friends. The other was to the Greek island of Crete for some well-earned R&R. I spent a morning in a museum at each location, and they couldn’t have been more different or surprising.

Nostalgia

Our first museum was an unplanned visit to Anglesey’s Transport Museum. Our itinerary for the day had originally included a visit to the beach but, in keeping with the British camping tradition, the weather had other plans and decided horizontal rain was a better idea. So instead, six of us, aged from 14 years to 50 years old, headed to the Transport Museum.

This small, family run attraction is exactly like you might expect. A ramshackle collection of bikes, cars and military vehicles that appear to be a petrol-head’s passion grown out of control. With around 200 vehicles on display, I guarantee that at least one of your group will exclaim “My dad had one of those!” Each one of us walked around the site, reading every panel, sign and object label we could find. We looked at every exhibit and small object, and every one of our group had a great time.

Why?

The stories.

It’s all about the story

Each vehicle had a very simple interpretation panel made from a laminated A4 sheet, straight from a desktop printer. We’ve all seen them, and usually, they’re pretty unfulfilling, listing facts, dates, technical specifications and the like.

But these panels were different. These panels each contained a STORY! We found out where the car had come from, who had owned it previously and what kind of life it had enjoyed before it got to the museum. We were given interesting titbits of info about what made that particular model or marque special, which TV shows had featured them and which famous people had sat in its seats. We heard about Fred down the road who used to keep chickens in the van which was on display, and how many hours of work it took to bring that vehicle back to life for exhibit in the museum. There were stories everywhere, and we could hardly wait to get onto the next vehicle to read the next instalment.

To be honest I hadn’t expected much when we’d set off on our rainy-day excursion to this small, unsung family-owned attraction, but we got so much more than we bargained for. Sitting in the museum café afterwards, all of us were chatting about the exhibition, delighted with our unexpectedly engaging visit.

The big bucks museum

Fast forward six months and it was time for another holiday, so we decided a break in Crete was just what we needed. Reading the Lonely Planet guide, it said that no visit to Crete was complete without a visit to the capital’s newly refurbished Archaeological Museum.

“A treasure trove.”
“If you only see one museum in Crete, this is the one.”
“Don’t skip it!”

So, we went. And, don’t get me wrong, it was an awesome spectacle. The huge collection of historically significant items was fabulously well displayed. Many of the objects were a delight to behold and it was almost unbelievable to be in a room near such impressively old and beautiful objects. Even the interpretation panels, printed in vinyl and displayed between two sheets of clear, crisp Perspex – these panels looked beautiful. Really, the whole experience was stunning to look at.

But.

And it’s a big but…

No stories

I was left with a feeling that I’d missed the point. I didn’t understand the relevance of the objects and why they were considered important enough to be on display beyond the fact that they were old. I tried to read the interpretation panels, I really did. But each one I read was laced with facts, data and jargon terminology that I didn’t understand or could not relate to. In my view, the panels fell foul of one of interpretation’s golden rules – Don’t make your visitor feel stupid.

Maybe I am just stupid? Maybe I’m too stupid to understand the display. But then, I don’t think I’m any more or less educated about Cretan and Minoan history than the rest of the tourist visitors in the place that day – all of whom were walking around with a glazed expression. Nobody was chatting enthusiastically in the café afterwards this time. I couldn’t help feeling we were experiencing a severe case of the Emperor’s new clothes.

How to fix it

So how could the experience have been improved? Well, it comes back to the stories. Try as I might, I couldn’t extract the stories from the objects or the interpretation. I couldn’t understand why the objects were chosen for display, or get any more than a basic explanation of why the object was relevant. ‘For ceremonial purposes’ or ‘Found in Hersonissos’ was the best story they had to offer. I wanted to know the story of how it was found, or why the snakes were considered so highly, or at least the sequential timeline of when the objects were in use. Anything! But, alas, there were no stories. We walked around the museum desperately trying to get a handle on what we were looking at, hoping that as we walked around the story would become evident. But no.

An introduction to the collection, like a trailer for a film, would have gone a long way to helping us to understand the museum’s collection and its aims. Whether an introductory series of panels, short film or animation or a decent leaflet when we paid for our tickets – any of these would have helped to set the scene. As it was, the leaflet we received was simply a cliff-face of text, awash with jargon and terminology that didn’t engage us one bit. With just a little bit of prior knowledge, we could have made more sense of the collection as we viewed it – had something to hang our hat on, so to speak.

Appealing to your audience

I’m guessing, the interpretation at this museum was written by academics, curators and historians with a detailed knowledge of the subject. The interpretation was written as if visitors were their equally academic peers, rather than being written for visiting touristic laypeople. Unfortunately, as a result, much of the wonder and amazement that we could have no doubt experienced was lost to us. This beautiful and historically awesome collection was let down, but for the want of the stories that remain hidden from view. And that is such a frustrating disappointment. Collecting awesome objects is the hardest part of a museum’s job. Telling their stories is the easy bit. It’s such a shame that this museum missed such a fabulous opportunity, essentially spoiling the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar.

Without stories, museum objects are simply eye-candy. Surely, museum’s custodian responsibilities insist that they should do better? After all, we only need to look to the Transport Museum in Anglesey to see what can be done with very limited resources.

Anglesey – 1
Heraklion – 0

The lessons to learn here are:

  • Give stories, not just facts
  • Add layers to your story panels to appeal to different visitor types
  • Make the stories relevant and interesting to the visitor
  • Write in a way that appeals to your audience, not just historians
  • Give the visitor an ‘on-ramp’ introduction to prepare them for what they’re about to see
  • If you use jargon or unfamiliar terminology – explain it
  • And last, but not least – remember the definition of interpretation is to explain the MEANING of something

Tony Jones is a freelance interpretive copy writer, working with museum design companies and heritage sites worldwide.

Email: info@52oaks.com

Twitter: @Tony52Oaks

Web: www.52oaks.com

Images: Courtesy of Anglesey Transport Museum.

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