Behind the copywriting scenes at the museum

It’s a great time to be working in museums.

Many are re-imagining their spaces so that visitors are more actively involved. And they’re recognising that to be sustainable they need to become more relevant to the communities they serve.

Copywriting plays an important role in this change. So it’s never been so important to get it right.

Museum copy has a lot to achieve. It has to get visitors through the door in the first place (promotional communication). Move them around once they’re inside (signage). Make them stop and consider what they’re experiencing (interpretation). And hopefully convince them to make a donation (PR).

Top 5 copywriting challenges and opportunities

Accessible copy. Interpretive text has changed substantially over the last ten years. There’s more emotive rather than academic copy being used to bring museum displays alive (as Jake Barton of Local Projects recently said at Museum Next, “we’re more likely to remember experiences that we reflect on”). And we more readily debate how much or how little interpretation to give an artwork or object, and in what format (text panels, handouts, labels, enablers, audio, digital solutions)?

But some museums still need convincing that using plain English does not mean dumbing down. I’m reading Playing to the Gallery (Particular Books, 2014) where Grayson Perry tackles this very issue. He describes the ‘impenetrability’ of language often used when describing contemporary art, how it can make us feel ‘uneducated’ and subsequently not entitled to our own opinion.

He’s right. Some do need to remove the jargon and tell an absorbing story instead. Prompt a visitor to create their own interpretation about what’s on display. Or draw on the words of non-specialists through co-curation, especially when they’re better placed to help tell those stories. Curators are knowledgeable with lots of genuinely interesting information to share – the challenge is working out what’s relevant and captivating for the target audience. And then communicating it succinctly.

Sign in a galleryConsistent copy. I often work with museums to improve the consistency of copy between different communication materials. Take this example of internal signage (see image on right). Although family-friendly workshops are advocated across all promotional communication copy, this is the tone that families receive once they’re through the door. Aside from anything else, I’m sure adults would be equally tempted to touch.

Persuasive copy. Fundraising is high on the agenda in museums. Using persuasive copywriting techniques is crucial to campaigns, but there isn’t always the expertise in-house or a budget to pay for freelance copywriters to create powerful copy that might make all the difference.

Diverse copy. Many museum teams are extremely small and often have shared roles. Sometimes a member of staff will write interpretive copy when their main skillset lies in external communication, or vice versa. Of course there are text writing training courses for museum staff, but as we know it’s not a quick win. They need continued support in their professional development so they learn how to create compelling copy across a range of materials, for a variety of audiences.

Fresh copy. Museums are increasingly appealing to visitor motivations through targeted and often playful promotional copy in their campaigns. But we need to break away from over-used copy, like the string of verbs ‘visit, discover, create, explore’ which repeatedly appear in a variety of guises. We are privileged that our product is creative and our communication should be too. Museums need to remember to sell the benefits as much as the features.

When was the last time you went to a museum or noticed a museum marketing campaign? What did you think about the copy?

Marge Ainsley works freelance with cultural organisations on marketing and communication, audience development and visitor research.

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