Lack of authenticity implies a lack of respect for your audience. If you don’t believe what you’re writing, your readers won’t believe it either. Consider the math example we just read about: “Algebra provides procedures for manipulating symbols to allow for understanding of the world around us.” Really? Do you know anyone who manipulates algebraic symbols in order to understand the world around them? There’s a reason that we (and also the kids it’s supposed to address), see right through this. It’s not authentic.

Writing authentically helps fix the potential problem of talking down to your readers too. If you don’t respect your readers they won’t respect what you have to say. Remember the TV show “Frasier?” The show was under some pressure to halt the highbrow language and tone of Frasier Krane and his brother Niles, for fear the TV audience wouldn’t get it. But Kelsey Grammer, who played Frasier Krane, refused. “”I am solidly convinced, and I always will be, that the audience is hungry for us to play up to it,” said Kelsey Grammer. “They are engaged by language that is not commonplace. I think they find intelligence fascinating. Most people do. The most interesting thing people do, after all, is think.”[1] And he was right. “Frasier” was on for 11 years and won numerous Emmy, Golden Globe and other awards.

The best advice I’ve seen on writing authentically is to write the way you talk. Your interpretive writing should be a conversation with the reader. As museum educators, we all try to be friendly experts when it comes to our visitors, and we care intensely about meeting the visitors where they are. Write as if you are talking to a visitor, sharing your enthusiasm about art, and your writing will be authentic.

The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.
– James Baldwin

Questions on labels or in text produced for students, teachers or in a gallery guide are fine, but only if they’re authentic. Too often questions appear written on labels or gallery guides that ask in various ways: What do you think?  It’s a rhetorical question, there’s really no one there to hear your answer and so it becomes an empty exercise. Worse, it implies that you haven’t been thinking up to that point and now you should think, which is downright insulting. Questions are good if they are authentic. Go back to my favorite label as an example. Remember that the label tells you a bit about Duncan Phillip’s tastes in collecting art and then it ends with an invitation in the form of a question: compare your tastes with Duncan Phillip’s. It’s an enticing idea – pretend you’re filthy rich and reviewing a friend’s collection­ – would you have collected the same?

  1. Bruce Newman, "All in Their Family," LA Times, March 1, 1998 accessed September 1, 2013.


If You Can't See It Don't Say It Copyright © 2013 by Museum-Ed. All Rights Reserved.


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