At the USS Constitution Museum, developing new content for a family audience challenged us to convey history in a way that appeals to both adults and children. Many people felt this would mean “dumbing down” the story. Instead it led us to think thematically, choose information that best supported the themes, and layer content in creative ways. We realized:
- Less is more. Fifty word labels that people read are better than longer labels that people ignore.
- Writing fifty word labels are a good exercise in getting to the point.
- Labels (and writing them) can be fun. Playing with word choice, voice, and tone to engage the audience makes them more interesting to read and write.
Less is more when writing for a family audience
A highly researched topic can be conveyed to a family audience without diluting the content. We knew that our visitors didn’t want a “book on the wall.” And we didn’t want to saturate visitors with text to the point that they disengaged. Our goal was to create an engaging, educational, experiential, conversational experience, not to cram the most information into our space and visitor.
We gave ourselves the goal to limit our text panels to 50 words. Fifty words is brutally short, but it forced us to focus. For each panel we asked ourselves: what is the main point we want to convey? This meant that we distilled a 50-page draft document with research notes and quotes down to a fifteen page document with text for the interpretive panels, object labels and question panels.
Where did all the information go? It’s everywhere
The tremendous amount of research that fuels the exhibit is showcased in associated programs including local and national education and school programs, museum theater productions, articles, conferences, and eventually a website dedicated bringing a comprehensive database of our sailors to life. We implemented staff brown bag lunches to share the research as it unfolds. Each year the Museum conducts a 10-week training session on the history of USS Constitution for the U.S. Navy crew who provide the tours of the Ship to crowds of visitors who tread her deck each year. The research conducted for the exhibit is the focus of the crew training and will enhance every visitor’s understanding of the Ship.
Lightening up, not dumbing down
We weren’t dumbing down, we were lightening up. The short segments of text carry the themes in an engaging, conversational manner that reflects the perspective of the speaker (crew member). These labels were unlike any label we had written before. Once we gained confidence in this new method, we discovered that label writing could actually be fun. Instead of dry, academic report writing, these labels turned into a creative writing exercise. We learned to have fun with word choice (i.e. “buddy” instead of “friend”). More significantly, we were freed of the constraint of anonymously written, third-person labels, representing the voice of authority. By simply changing the voice from third to first person the same content suddenly came alive. Some of our NEH-sponsored scholars were our toughest critics going into the process and our greatest supporters upon its completion. Our prototype exhibit convinced them that the content was not dumbed down in the delivery to the family audience.
TEXT DELIVERED IN THIRD PERSON
“Every morning sailors holystoned (scrubbed) the deck. They took off their shoes, rolled up their pants and then got on their knees and scrubbed with water and sand. Sailors disliked this chore especially when it was cold.”
TEXT DELIVERED IN FIRST PERSON
“One of the things I dislike the most about being a sailor is holystoning (scrubbing) the decks each morning day after day. The worst is when it’s cold. We take off our shoes, roll up our pants and get on our hands and knees, add salt water and sand, then scrub . scrub . scrub.”
The proof is in the numbers
The Museum tracked and timed family visitors through two exhibits: Our traditional exhibit, Old Ironsides in War and Peace, and our family-focused prototype exhibit, A Sailors Life for Me?
Old Ironsides in War and Peace is a 3,000 square foot exhibit with many long text panels totaling nearly 4,500 words, sensational objects, and a few interactives. We found that families spent an average of 7 minutes in the exhibit.
A Sailor’s Life for Me? is only 2,000 square feet and contains about 1500 words of text. Families spent nearly 22 minutes in this smaller exhibit and, just as important, talked to each other significantly more than in the larger, traditional exhibit.