Help Readers Care

Caring is part of interest. People get interested and keep reading because they care. You can help people care about what they read by making it personal and emotional. Remember the picture of Anzac and Peggy? Part of what helped us care about what would happen to them is that the caption called them by name – human names. Reading about Anzac and Peggy is so much more personal than reading about a kangaroo and a wombat. Even though analysis is a lot of what we do in art museums, reading about it turns people off, it’s too impersonal. Consider this example:

There were 16.7 million cars registered in Australia in 2012, up 13.3% since 2007. As a result, cars killed millions of animals last year.

Anzac and Peggy need your help. Their mothers were killed by cars.

Which makes you care more? Making Anzac and Peggy’s story personal also makes it emotional. One of the ways this works is by addressing the reader directly. Use the word YOU whenever you can, as in “Anzac and Peggy need your help.”

For art museums, this means adopting an active voice. Don’t write “It interesting to note…” instead write “You might find it interesting…” You can create triggers to action by directly telling people where to look or what to do. “Look at the fleur-de-lis on the mast of the ship. They’re a symbol of France.” Don’t write “We’ve created an audio tour…” Instead write “You’ll enjoy listening to our audio tour.”

To write in a more active voice, go through your text and remove the words “that” and “then” where ever you can. You’ll find that you don’t need to replace them, and removing them will then make your message more compact and your voice more active.

According to Grammar Girl[1] an active voice means that the subject of the sentence is doing the action: Kris loves museums. In the passive voice, the receiver of the action, museums receiving love, gets promoted to the subject position: Museums are loved by Kris.

The passive voice is usually harder to understand for the general population. But Grammar Girl notes: “An exception is that scientists are often encouraged to write in passive voice to lend their writing a sense of objectivity–to take themselves and their actions and opinions out of the experimental results.” Does this sound familiar? It should, because a lot of art historians write in the passive voice too.

The musical iconography of Cubism has often been the subject of general discussion. Only recently, however, has a picture of the artists’ musical inclination during the early Synthetic Cubism years begun to emerge. This expanded vision is based largely on the lettered names of composers and song title, and on the inclusion of collaged portions of sheet music found in many of these compositions.[2]

This kind of writing might be fine for art historians, but given to our visitors is it any wonder that many are surprised to hear about all the people who work in art museums? People want to hear from other people. We can make our museums and our writing more interesting by making it personal, from one person to another. This often requires that we adopt a point of view. Take a stand, reject objectivity, let readers know there’s a real person behind the writing. The current fashion in some museums is for the authors of didactic labels to sign their work to achieve this understanding. But take a closer look at the content of the label. If authors continue to produce incomprehensible art history gobble-dee-gook, and then sign the label to add a personal touch, we still haven’t achieved our aims.

Appealing to reader’s emotions helps them care more about what they’re reading and by extension, looking at. Research also suggests that emotional ideas are more memorable, and that readers rate emotional parts of text as more important. One of the ways to tap into the strength of emotions and to create empathy is by asking your reader to imagine. The following example represents an obvious and compassionate point of view, and asks readers to imagine:


Harriet Powers, Athens, Georgia
Bible Quilt, 1886-1886
National Museum of American History

In 1890 Harriet Powers fell on hard times. A white art teacher named Jennie B. Smith admired Harriet’s bible quilt at a local fair and Harriet accepted five dollars for it. Jennie entered the quilt in the Cotton States Exposition, where a group of women from Atlanta University saw it and commissioned Harriet to make another. Eventually this quilt made its way to the Smithsonian, and the other was given to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. That is all we know about the needlework of Harriet Powers. We can only imagine what other quilts she might have made.[3]

(Fictitious label, adapted from The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, Penguin Books, 1998)

Another way to create an emotional connection is to appeal to your reader’s identity. John Falk has done a lot of research regarding museum visitors and identity, theorizing that museums have something to contribute to visitors’ idea of who they are ­– their identity as art lovers.[4]

In Made to Stick, the Heath brothers share a story about a math teacher trying to come up with an answer that would satisfy his students’ questions: Why should we study algebra? When will we ever use it? In 1993 a group of math teachers pondered the question and came up with this: “Algebra provides procedures for manipulating symbols to allow for understanding of the world around us.” Not very satisfying for high school algebra students. Another reason commonly cited for studying algebra: “Every future math and science class you take will require a knowledge of algebra.” Also not exactly satisfying, especially if you’re more interested in literature, art or the social sciences. It wasn’t until the math teacher came up with this that students were finally motivated to study algebra: “Math is mental weight training.”[5] This winning reason taps into kids’ schemas about weight lifting. Learning algebra, it suggests, makes you realize more of your potential, a powerful goal for most people, including kids. If we can help art museum visitors realize more of their potential as art lovers, they’ll likely form a stronger connection to what we have to say.

  1. Grammar Girl, accessed September 1, 2013
  2. Art History, Vol. 19 No. 1, March 1996. 102.
  3. The Guerrilla Girls’, Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, (New York: Penguin Books, 1998) 54-55.
  4. John Falk, Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2009).
  5. Heath, Made to Stick, 125.


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


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