If you know me, you know I love words. I’m a fanatical crossword-puzzler, Bananagrams champ, and sucker for story in all of its forms. A little more than a decade ago, I discovered there was a job for folks like me: “content person.” We lucky content people get to write, edit, and make stories, with words as our primary currency.
But words aren’t for everyone. We’re seeing, over and over again, that in museum spaces people don’t like to read for long periods of time. The “book-on-a-wall” approach—once so common—now falls flat. It doesn’t resonate with visitors. They won’t come back. They won’t bring their friends. Even I, an avowed reader, struggle with a 2024 attention span; I often find myself skimming when I used to savor.
How much is too much?
This situation vexes us in the museum content world. Institutions have complex, nuanced, highly detailed stories to tell. They hire us to act as translators between experts and everyday people; our job is to craft content that visitors will understand, remember, and share. To do that well, we have to think short—ALWAYS. And that’s hard. Context matters! Details are important!
Our recent collaboration with the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) pushed me, as the project’s content lead, in the best way. Our clients at the museum understood the importance of brevity—everything we made with them needed to be clear, pithy, accessible, and to the point.
Introducing the artists
For In Focus: Artists at Work, which is the first exhibit visitors encounter when they arrive at the newly renovated museum, we decided to rethink traditional artist bios. See ya, long-winded rundowns of previous exhibitions! Adieu, flowery, jargon-y descriptors! Instead we worked to capture each artist’s essence in as few words as possible. Meet Delita Martin:
Delita Martin identifies as a printmaker, but her artistic vision defies categorization.
Martin creates large-scale prints onto which she draws, sews, collages, and paints, exploring the space between our physical world and a spiritual one we cannot see. She foregrounds African American subjects in her work, most often women; their powerful presence challenges the historical absence of Black bodies in Western art.
Martin learned to stitch and tell stories while quilting into the night alongside her grandmother. You can see echoes of their connection in her work, which marries pattern and portrait.
An artwork's inside story
We took a similar approach to copy for Create Connections, an interactive table located within the main galleries that highlights surprising links between works across time, medium, and geography. In that experience, we used fewer than 100 words to bring sticky, memorable details into the spotlight, rather than trying to tell the whole story of an artist or object. Exhibit A:
For Rania Matar, embracing the moment can produce stunning results.
In the series “SHE,” inspired by her daughters, Matar depicted young women preparing to enter adulthood. She photographed her subjects outside of their usual environments, always with dramatic effect and, occasionally, with little planning. Matar met Rayven, the subject of this photograph, while standing in line behind her at a restaurant in Miami. Matar had a plane to catch that evening, so Rayven agreed to be photographed right away. They headed to the beach, which delivered stormy seas and dark skies. Matar used what she happened to have: a single camera and lens.
You can't have it all
Inevitably, on every project, I grieve the gems that end up on the cutting-room floor. But being a ruthless editor is part of the gig, and, more often than not, less is more. If we overwhelm people with information, there’s a good chance we’ll lose them. At best, they’ll skim; at worst, they’ll skip.
But when we do our jobs right, when we find the sweet spot, we can deliver stories that move people, stay with them, and inspire them to learn more. And then maybe, just maybe, they’ll discover those gems—the ones from the cutting-room floor—on their own.