Exhibitions have become a media, produced by professionals (museographers or exhibit designers) in order to touch the public. Depending on the type of exhibit, there are various kinds of effects desired: esthetic, scientific, social, etc. The specific nature of a media exhibit is that it displays works or objects in a space, arranged and laid out in a pathway, so that they can be seen, understood, and appreciated by the public.
Like other media, exhibitions combine several registers of meaning to create content to be transmitted or to produce effects on visitors. These registers (objects, sound, scenery, lighting, and audio-visual) are supposed to showcase objects along an organised pathway. Yet one of these is sometimes left aside or forgotten: the textual register. Although it recieves little attention, the written word plays a major role in the conception and integration of an exhibition’s discourse.
The texts displayed fulfill three functions: indicating (creating a sign), labelling (affixing labels), and commenting (adding panels). Indicating is crucial so that the visitor can identify and follow the prescribed path. Labels, which are small and discreet, are placed near each object, naming and identifying it. The very presence of a label makes something an object of the exhibition. Finally, panels enable the subject to be introduced, to add information that is impossible to communicate with objects alone, and to explain and comment on any aspect of the exhibition.
Can we do without writing?
The presence of texts has been debated within the world of professionals (conservators, collection managers, museographers, scenographers, curators, etc.) who create signs for new exhibits. There are a small number of people who feel that texts are useless, that it is better to do without them or keep them to the strict minimum. Others give considerable importance to them, even create them with great care.
But what happens to these texts when the exhibition is opened to the public? We have only partial and scattered information on visitors’ reading practices. In research on these texts, we find both extremes. Early studies, influenced by the educational model and therefore evaluations done in schools, tried to verify that the cognitive content of the panels or labels were understood or retained by the visitors. More recent research has turned away from the textual content to pay more attention to the situation of the visit and the media exhibition itself.
Writing to be read and by whom?
Reading and writing are inseparable. We always write to someone or for someone. The people attending an exhibit are visitors and readers. They stand and move together with the people who have come with them. Most of the time, they read at the same time as other visitors or with them watching. Thus, this reading differs from individual reading, which is personal and silent. Reading at an exhibit is done standing, in a space that may or may not be well lit, in front of texts of varying lengths, which may or may not be interesting or well-laid out, and sometimes they are not easy to understand.
Someone who writes an exhibition text does not lose sight of the fact that he or she is addressing a curious and willing visitor. And visitors do not like to be addressed as if they are completely ignorant or are children. But if we write for visitors as if they are also specialists, then they immediately think that the text is not for them and they give up reading even before having finished deciphering the first text. Nevertheless, it is impossible to imagine an average reader: the museum-going public is very diverse: they have different ages and levels of education, and varying levels of familiarity with the exhibition’s content and objects. This means they do not have the same interests nor the same competence. This heterogeneity is nevertheless a common concern and writers knows they are writing for novices as well as for well-informed enthusiasts.
Contrary to reading in a seated position where the distance to the printed page is invariable, reading from text on a picture rail is unstable and sometimes difficult. The same text may be seen and read from near or far. Furthermore, visitors have come to see art works and objects; they only read out of necessity or because they are intrigued by what is on display. The text completes and accompanies the visitor’s gaze, which is focused first and foremost on objects – obviously the text cannot substitute for viewing.
Likewise, we must abandon the idea of a docile reader who reads displayed texts in the order presented, as well as that of a careful visitor who deciphers each text from beginning to end, without jumping over a line or paragraph and who rereads anything not understood. In fact, only some texts are read, and people read however they like: one person may read only a title, while another looks only at the first lines, whereas a bolder reader may skip around and read a heading or paragraph. The diversity of ways to read the same text obviously has consequences for creating and printing texts displayed in museums and monuments. This suggests that it would be prudent for writers and exhibitors to propose various ways of reading a text or written-visual object.
How many visitors read the words?
We know that traditionally, in most of the surveys done as visitors leave an exhibit, the question “Did you read the exhibit texts?” has a very low positive response (between 10 – 20%). The consistent weakness of these statistics has eventually persuaded the community of professionals that texts are not very useful as they are rarely read. However, we have already shown that this opinion is partially wrong. or rather, that it is based on a false idea of how visitors read. If, as we have done, we rephrase the question as: “During your visit, have you glanced from time to time at the texts displayed in this exhibit?” the positive responses reach 90%.
Even though the uselessness of exhibit texts has sometimes been proclaimed, or the death of texts predicted, or certain people have ceaselessly asserted without any proof that visitors do no read the texts, writing continues to occupy a major place. There are three reasons that explain this: writing is an efficient and inexpensive means of communication; multimedia, contrary to popular belief, shows that computers and the Internet are characterized by the tyranny of writing; and finally, writing is indispensable for the exhibition to fufill its role as a major tool for informal education, since we now also learn outside school.
How can we explain this difference? The question “Have you read the displayed texts?” conveys a double injonction for the visitor: first, it states a duty (you must read the exhibit texts!) and second, it inevitably allows for only one way to read: careful and attentive reading such as in school. The people who answer the survey, and who have obviously read as we do in daily life (partial reading, skimming), are afraid that if they answer yes, the questionner will then try to verify whether they have actually read the text. Thus, it’s in their interest to say that they haven’t read it! This way, they don’t lose face for the rest of the interview and justify their inability to answer other questions.
Reading: an automatic activity
Not only do visitors consult texts, but they read them without even knowing that they are doing so. We forget that reading is an automated cognitive activity: it is impossible for visitors who know how to read, not to read a line placed in front of them. Of course, visitors do not read all of the displayed texts, nor do they read them in their entirety; they are satisfied with only the titles or certain legends. They stop to read when they are looking for information they want. But they may also read more carefully when they feel the need or are interested. It is enough to go through the exhibits to see that the text, as a component of the exhibition media, is an irreplaceable element.
On several occasions, we have conducted research on the impact of texts used for heritage sites, museums, and temporary exhibitions. Panels, labels, signs, leaflets and other interpretive aids have each been described, compared, and tested. More recently, audioguides, catalogues, websites and all the promotional texts (posters, flyers) and ‘after’ texts (critiques of the exhibition) have also been studied. This body of research has established a series of incontrovertible facts that confirm that writing is an essential and irreplaceable exhibition media.
Certainly, displayed texts are less pervasive than before, but it is far from certain that their substitutes (electronic texts on screens or projected, oral texts in MP3 players or headphones) are ergonomically better or easier to understand for the visitor. In any event, these are always texts in natural speech, translated into other languages; on one hand, they offer new information; on the other, they name, indicate, interpret, or comment on the exhibit’s objects arranged in space or along a pathway.
Asking if an ideal exhibit scenography would not have written texts assumes an almost idealised complicity between exhibitors and visitors, a bit like a couple in love who no longer need to speak to know they love each other. Yet this ideal is unrealistic. Because these texts use our first means of communication – natural native language – they are not just accessories but the very basis of exhibition media. We can state with near certainty that modifying texts is one of the smallest changes we can make that in itself is able to transform the discourse of an exhibit into another discourse.