Exhibit Captions

Here is my initial pass at captions, more basic content than punchy prose at this point. I’ve eschewed specific historical details and instead focused on design elements or larger historical trends. That’s partially because the fun stuff is too speculative and partially because it just doesn’t fit, but mostly because I think Serrell’s advice about focusing on the object itself is wise. I want to work in some subset of technology, women’s fancywork, mass media, and Japonism. They’re interesting things going on at the time of the quilt’s creation, which can be physically illustrated by the quilt, and can be tied into larger narratives. So to a great extent, I think the contents of the caption should be driven by what we decide to say in the exhibit as a whole, what narrative needs to be reinforced and what gaps filled.

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Weekly readings: exhibiting things

I remain a fan of Yellis’s contention that the process of exhibit creation is something that is worthy of incorporation into an exhibit…somehow.* The fact that our other classwork (not just the deliverables of modest scope and word count) is potentially being mined for interesting content leaves me hopeful that some sort of supplementary material might be made available in the Drexel exhibit.

Serrell’s chapters contain the most directly useful information for developing captions for the quilt. It’s all about brevity, but also dynamism and a healthy dose of Prownian analysis: visitors are there, experiencing a thing (that is what museums are all about, after all; it’s what they do, at the price of lengthy textual arguments, that a monograph cannot) so it makes sense to talk about that thing.

I’m a little ashamed to admit that I hadn’t really been thinking about the caption in this sense. (And, since the quilt is not “lacking visual interest,” as are some of the objects that concern Kirshenblatt-Gimblet, I hadn’t even thought about justifying the quilt’s inclusion in the exhibit, except to explain its former life as, and connection to, garments.) I’d considered the possibility of a descriptive label, a dry rendition of materials and dates and whatnot, but that seemed more appropriate to a context of art rather than history. I think this was partially driven by a desire to cut words, the assumption that visitors will be able to see the quilt for themselves and have their own emotional and sensory response. But now I am thinking of ways in which I can weave object description into that tiny block of text, and hopefully increase its impact.

I noticed that a number of Serrell’s points (and to a lesser extent Parman, in her discussion of text and background colors) echoed web usability advice. I’m thinking primarily of Jakob Nielsen’s eyetracking studies, including points about big blocks of text, “above the fold” information, and reading patterns. I have internalized Nielsen as “generally good design advice,” so anything that agrees strikes me as a reasonable proposition.

I am curious about the methodology involved in Serrell’s recommendations. What sort of studies have museums performed? To what extent do they rely on the work in other fields? (I recall seeing some report many, many moons ago that the sunburst “o” in the Dole label resulted from customer eyetracking studies.) And what are the mission creep implications if museums start listening to marketers or website designers? Normally I’d be all for cross-training, benefitting from the expertise of folks in other fields—and the marketing dollars a Dole is willing to drop—but items #1 and #8 in Durel’s piece leave me somewhat (over?)sensitized to the corporatization of public history.


* On the archival front, Heather MacNeil makes a similar argument in favor of colophons, which I also think is a good idea but not necessarily straightforward in implementation.

I think this is a case where the ableist part of that assumption is not particularly problematic from the perspective of caption development, because fifty words is simply not enough to adequately describe any of these objects to a person who is visually impaired (and other senses will not be particularly relevant in the exhibit context). But it does raise the question of when it’s appropriate to provide additional accessibility options and what form they might take. Audio recordings of lengthy object descriptions, plus the text of the captions? A guide reading similar material from a script? Practical factors, like budget and available equipment and staff, obviously play a significant role in answering those sorts of questions.