forever a red raider living in the basement of a museum.  ΣAI alumni. virgo. 

Last update
2021-09-17 16:32:21

    HELL ya. housekeeping is how the hospital stays clean enough to heal people. it’s endless, thankless, backbreaking, and disgusting. they deserve more pay, more benefits, and more appreciation.


    In the N95, paper mask on top, full face shield, gown, gloves, shoe covers, in the COVID wards right along with medical staff. Watched them do it for ten months. Absolutely indispensable people.


    This is controversial I know, but as someone who loves learning new things and hates feeling stupid, I always err on the side of simple when I’m teaching people about history, particularly when I’m working with niche equipment or antiquated terms.

    When you’re so enmeshed in a subject, it can be all too easy to forget that your knowledge and vocabulary is now different from everyone else’s. I go to a lot of reenactments where the people there are passionate about history, but don’t know how to teach it, or deal with museums where the curator rather than the educational staff writes labels. Far too often I’ve had to step in and explain a concept or word because someone else thought it was obvious so it wasn’t.

    Just in the 18th century alone I’ve had explain when people were confused by someone using period appropriate, but confusing words such as:

  • “Stays” rather than corset
  • “Chocolate” rather than “hot chocolate”
  • “Petticoat” rather than “skirt”
  • “Shrewsbury cake” rather than “cookie”
  • “But Beggars!” you say, “it’s wrong to use modern terms for things when we know what they were actually called! They’re not the same!” Not if you explain yourself. You and I both know that stays and corsets are differently shaped, but to 99% of the population, it’s a support garment, and that’s what they need to know. I will generally use the appropriate term and then explain using more colloquial language. “I’m wearing stays - what we would today call a corset, although they’re differently shaped.” Making the person guess what you’re talking about is putting more mental strain on them and causing them to lose track of the discussion.

    As a professional who still looks like a child, I know how awkward it can be when someone assumes that you have a negative level of knowledge, but I am always going to err on that side and then beef up my interpretation later, rather than starting at a master’s degree level, making someone feel stupid, and then having to backtrack. A good interpreter will be able to glean someone’s general level of knowledge very quickly.


    A large part of the job of exhibit designers, in museums and parks and zoos and historical sites etc, is to mediate between the subject matter experts, like curators or scientists, who are incredibly knowledgable and extremely passionate and absolutely desperate for the exhibit to convey every single thing they know to the public, and the future visitor, who is everyone who might hypothetically walk in the door (or down the nature trail); people of all ages and reading levels and interest levels and levels of background knowledge.

    The experts inevitably want people to walk through the exhibit and come away with a complex and nuanced understanding of the subject, and we have to talk them down from “putting the book on the wall” (the sort of dense, text-heavy museum exhibit that makes even the most enthusiastic visitor glaze over and start eyeing the exit within ten minutes). It’s often genuinely pretty emotional for them to have us edit down text and reduce word counts and simplify complex concepts and add in metaphors that help the visitor relate to the material, so we do our best to interpret the concept of interpretation* to our subject matter experts, and explain that the ‘learning goals’ of a museum/park/etc visit should be, realistically, to make a connection and spark an interest, so the visitor goes away wanting to learn more on their own time.

    Simplified or modernized language is part of this process, no matter how many expert teeth it sets on edge (even being trained in interpretive writing, as a naturalist I still get hives when asked to label organisms with common names only and no latin binomials. I know their use can be alienating but it is really truly not easy to let go of these things!); visitors are going to form connections to what they are already familiar with. And it’s much harder to thread the needle of ‘enough detail to spark interest and genuinely convey information, but simplified enough to be broadly accessible’ when writing panels rather than getting to react to a visitor in-person as an on-site interpreter. Some people will walk away going ‘okay, corsets and stays are the same’ and just… have absorbed a slightly wrong idea about 18th century clothing forever, the end. BUT the important thing is that visitor now knows there is a thing called ‘stays’, and that it’s a support garment, and that they wore them in the colonial period, and the next time they encounter the idea they’ll have that little spark of connection (‘hey, that’s what that lady at the museum was wearing/talking about’) and hopefully that will inspire them to further curiosity.

    …at least, that’s what we all hope when we make these things, god knows plenty of visitors just show up to scribble on the panels with a sharpie and leave, but SOME of them absorb SOMETHING… probably.

    *even using the word ‘interpretation’ like this is jargon to non-museum folks, and I’m so steeped in it that I almost didn’t catch myself. It’s essentially the term for the kind of education that goes on in museums, but here’s a Freeman Tilden quote that defines it and also sums up the larger point here about using familiar terms to visitors:

    “The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation. Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile. Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information.”


    Okay, but… can I have, like, a QR code to the less edited version? I’m okay with “this is to spark curiosity”, but then looking for more information is a rabbit warren of trying to find it and I have to remember enough of it to go find it later.  I find most exhibit information completely unsatisfying.


    That is a really good idea, and something that I think more museums could utilize.

    There are still many places that have gaps in their educational content, and you’re right, that completely goes both ways. Funding, especially at smaller institutions, is often scarce, and doesn’t go toward fair compensation for educational staff, which is what you really need if you want to fully engage with each person where they’re at.

    If you’re in a museum where there are people walking around asking if you have any questions, please, please ask them things! The worst they can say is “I don’t know,” but even in a place where they’re strictly security, they can usually point you to someone who knows what you need.

    Educators are there specifically to fill those gaps that a standard exhibit can never fill and to help you move forward on your journey. We are nerds as well, and it’s our job to nerd out about whatever it is you want to know, to the level you are comfortable with. That means at the last gallery I worked at, I had to be able to engage with a fully-grown adult asking about the minutiae of spy networks, and also engage with the five-year-old whose mother pointed at me and just said “can you explain to her what the American Revolution was?” And then to point them both in the right direction to learn more.

    A good museum will have educators consistently on hand specifically for you to pick their brains. If they don’t, it’s worth poking around to see if anyone has made supplemental information available elsewhere, like on an exhibit-specific page on their website. Labels will have an id number for each object listed on the label that you can use to look up in their online database later, if if they’ve made that accessible. My favorite museum has rack cards at the exit tailored to specific interests (“I like military history,” “I like ships,” “I like historical fiction,” etc) that include a tailored reading list for each type. If there is a gallery talk scheduled with the curator, it’s probably going to go in depth into something they’re passionate about and weren’t able to elaborate on in the labels.

    Museums are changing, many of them are going through growing pains and figuring out how to support everyone in their communities with vastly different needs, but they are trying.