I have two books about writing. One, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, who wrote that art and writing is a generosity: “… you tell somebody something not to show off, but because you want to share it with them.” The other, Beyond the Writer’s Workshop: New Ways to Write Creative Nonfiction by Carol Bly, who gave this advice (so relevant for art museums) on proofing your final draft: “… it is a good idea to check for fancy tone possibly emanating from unpleasant psychological smoke.” Both of these are Minnesota women, and that’s what I am. Midwestern, practical, plain spoken; and that’s what you’ll find in this guide. Interpretation is not information, as Freeman Tilden the great National Park Service interpreter tells us, it is revelation based on information; it is provocation rather than instruction. This guide is about interpretive writing, about practical ways to provoke our visitors to revelation about the works of art in our galleries. What you won’t find here are guidelines about font, type size, etc. or strategies for producing layers of interpretation for entire exhibitions. Those guidelines are given elsewhere, and you can see those resources in the attached bibliography.
I came to this guide after putting on a two-day online conference about writing for museum educators. I created the conference because I was interested in writing, and the audience of 250 people convinced me that others were interested too. Next I taught several online interpretive writing workshops with Philip Yenawine, whose guide to writing for adult museum visitors was a great inspiration. The workshops were free, but participants had to apply and we received many more applications than we could accept. Later I started conducting interpretive writing workshops for art museum educators in real time, and I thought I might turn those workshops into a guide so that more people could participate.
What I’ve learned along the way is set down here. You’ll read about ways to write about a work of art so that you can effectively share your ideas. Of course we seldom write about just one work of art, but writing about one work of art is a place to start, and you might later apply these ideas to a whole gallery, or an entire teacher packet. You may not be the one responsible for writing about art for your museum visitors, but that’s no reason not to write anyway. Garrison Keillor, another Minnesotan, said that you never really know what you think until you put it into words. So even if you’re not currently writing for visitors, write so that you know what you think about the art in your museum. Let’s get started.
- Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write (St. Paul: The Schubert Club, 1983), 163. ↵
- Carol Bly, Beyond the Writers' Workshop (New York: Anchor Books, 2001), 126. ↵
- Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977) 9. ↵
- Philip Yenawine, Writing for Adult Museum Visitors; Thoughts on Writing in Museums. Brooklyn: Visual Thinking Strategies, 1999. ↵