The Regional Review

Volume VII - Nos. 1 & 2

July-August, 1941

is a tough job

by Ned J. Burns,
Chief, Museum Division

James McNeil Whistler once remarked that it took two artists to paint a picture -- one to paint the picture, the other to kill him when it was finished and didn't know enough to quit. Writing labels and pamphlets for the information of the visiting public also requires similar teamwork omitting whenever possible, the little detail about killing. One member of this team is the historian or scientist with a complete knowledge of the events or processes involved, the second is a public contact man who has a complete knowledge of the educational limitations of the average visitor plus the ability to write in a plain and entertaining manner to reach the level of experience of these people. Both abilities are seldom found in the same person. Usually the profound student of history or science has, by the very nature of his work, lost contact with "the man in the street" who is identically the same person encountered in the park. It is equally true that the public contact man rarely has the time to engage in the original research necessary to become intimately familiar with all the phases of history and science, hence the need for teamwork.

It is more likely that the researcher will look with some contempt at the results produced by the public contractor. Possibly he will regard the finished product as childish or naive. The writer also may show a certain impatience at the researcher's insistence on including certain items which appear to be of tremendous importance. Herein lies the kernel of the problem. Details assume an ever-increasing importance as the researcher goes deeper in his quest for facts. The contact man knows how difficult it is to read a primer when one has but recently learned the alphabet and the futility of trying to teach algebra to s student who has not yet mastered arithmetic.

labels Such labels as these are imperiously technical but usually meaningless to the layman

This specimen label conveys the wrong information labels

labels Two styles of title labels. Compare the three dimensional plastic label above with the painted lettering below

In writing a label or other description, it is essential to separate the wheat from the chaff. The question is what shall be regarded as wheat. The writer will undoubtedly want to throw out some item as chaff which the researcher treasures as a very precious grain. Every thing being relative our team should endeavor to keep in sight the common objective toward which it is working; namely, the production of a description which is basically true and yet not over the heads of those who will read their label and profit, or pass it up in whole or in part with an evaluation of their relative importance. Secondly, the public contact man, guided by this material, prepares what he regards as a satisfactory interpretation by cutting out what he considers non-essential and elaborating or explaining what appears to be important but obscure. Thirdly, the researcher examines the result and checks again to be sure the facts have not been altered by this editing. If the partners are still good friends and willing to speak to each other after this back and forth, the result is ready for public scrutiny, but the job is not finished. It should now be subjected to the merciless criticism of any and everyone who, in all likelihood, will try to improve it. Some quiet observation and discreet questioning of the visitors who have read the label or booklet will soon reveal whether or not the result can be finally regarded as a success. The foregoing is slightly overdrawn to place emphasis on the care with which labels and other descriptive matter must be prepared.

Illustrated label -- Note that the inclusion of map and sketches help to make label clear and interesting

Clarity and brevity are the two essentials in a good descriptive label or booklet. The daily newspapers have been aware of this for a long time and teach their reporters to write with a vocabulary within the range of the average reader. The Teacher's Word Book, by E.L. Thorndike contains a list of 20,000 words selected from some 5 million. Each word bears a number showing its frequency of use. Insofar as possible words listed as being in the first five thousand should be used in label and booklet writing, and when necessary to go up the scale, increasing caution should be exercised. Frequently technical terms not familiar to the average layman must be employed. It should never be taken for granted that the visitor will comprehend such terms, and when necessary to employ them, they should be defined before launching into any description involving their use. The old recipe for an after-dinner speech, compared with a woman's skirt "which should be long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to be interesting" applies equally well to labels and descriptive pamphlets.

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Date: 04-Jul-2002