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A note to workshop “Writing for the Arts”


City University of Hong Kong invited Keri Ryan, the curator of Learning and Interpretation at M+ Museum, as the speaker of the Workshop “Writing for the Arts”, to share the challenges faced by arts professionals through the process of writing for the general public.

Prior to joining M+ Museum, Keri spent 12 years at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Canada in developing a wide range of engagement projects. Since 2019, she leads the interpretive approach of the exhibitions in M+ Museum, Visual Centre. She indicated that the way the audience engages in a museum has changed in the past five years. People were not allowed to use phones in museums in the past, but now smartphones are a key communication channel with the audience of a museum. In the workshop, Keri highlighted some challenges faced by arts professionals communicating to the public and how to overcome them.

Know your audience

Who is your audience? It is not simply to answer that everyone is your audience. Museum visitors come from a variety of cultural backgrounds, representing a range of ages, demographics, and group sizes. Before an arts professional starts writing, he/she should think about who you are writing to and how they encounter a museum.

Museum audiences encounter text when engaging with a museum in many ways, for example, website copy, wall labels, social media, marketing material, flyers. To write effectively, it is important to consider the audience’s background. “You are not the audience.” Keri reminds us to think about who you are writing to before you start writing. “Imagine you are writing to your neighbor.” Keri suggested. Writing the way you talk to your neighbor about an artwork or an exhibition would be accessible.

Consider the audience's state of mind while encountering what you have written. Prior to visiting the museum, some audiences might have reached the first level of content in social media, website or marketing materials. In a museum, visitors often read in low lighting or in an awkward location, as well as experiencing information and visual overload. Most of them read while walking, or just pass by the next on the wall. They are also easily distracted by kids, companions or phones. When people read a paragraph on-site or online, the information read by most people is only the first few sentences while the bottom is less read by the public. Thus, a message hierarchy helps construct your main message in an accessible way.

Consider the parallelism of bilingual text to audiences from different cultural backgrounds. Keri highlighted Chinese and English texts might not be parallel, depending on the audience whether they know what you are referencing. She explained with Chiang Chen (Hong Kong, born 1923)’s artwork “Watermelon ball”, some Hong Kong people shared the same familiarity with the popular toy in the household of Hong Kong during the 1970s and 1980s while international visitors might not know. Therefore, making appropriate adjustments to other language users could let them be included if a work or an exhibition has familiarity to a specific group.

Know your main message

Consider a message hierarchy when you are writing the main idea you want to communicate to the audience. Audience’s engagement with museums is often approached through the Skim, Swim, Dive framework, a methodology conceived by Charlotte Sexton. Visitors can skim the core message of a work/an exhibition by simply viewing the first sentence on label/wall.; or seek additional context and explore facts; or seek in-depth analyses and reviews through exhibit booklets. In M+, Keri and her team have to decide the forms of content and which media to put it on. They keep the introductory panels short and outline one core message which helps the audience understand the key message or idea of an exhibition. “Move the last sentence to the top!” she said. Information in the dive level is the most dedicated and rarely read by the public could consider putting them in websites or booklets. The framework gives the visitors the opportunity to explore different depths of content and helps arts writers know how to construct their message.

Less is more

“I always try to remind people that the less you write, the more the audience reads.” Keri said. “Some curators want to introduce the audience to everything. But what we should do is the opposite”. She explained with an artwork “Six Small Turntables” (Huang Yong Ping, 1954-2019), M+ team rewrote the object label from 128 words to 83 words, removed the idea the work is trying to express and raised a question to the audience instead. The label leads the audience to look at the work, through writing about what visitors can see, or explaining what might be puzzling about the work and considering the questions someone who has never seen this work before he/she might ask. A good label leads the audience to look back and forth, discovering new insights and making visual connections.

Another key is to write to include everyone. To balance the readability level, taking into account the complexity of sentence structure and reading age level that can be measured in a systematic means by a range of tools online. In addition, writers should avoid using specialist jargon in a text to increase the readability. If you must use a technical term or wish to introduce a technical term to an audience, you may start by defining it first.

Keep arts accessible

I am delighted to see M+ museum puts effort into engaging audiences by different means and acts as a leading role in engagement development among Hong Kong museums. It is common to see online programmes organized by Hong Kong museums that offer Chinese and English sessions separately or bilingual subtitles. Nevertheless, M+ proved their professional interpretive approach of engaging audiences online, by offering simultaneous interpretation in Cantonese to two recent online talks “Open Up M+: South Galleries” and “Young People Meet-up: Mapping out a Museum Career” which they originally conducted in English. Integrate audiences from different backgrounds in the same session instead of separating them is not only connected to the audience in a museum, also an alternative way to let the audience know the audience.

What writers should bear in mind when they are writing for the public is to keep arts accessible, open, and exclusive. Get to know your audience before you find the entry point of writing for the artworks and exhibitions. And consider the audience's state of mind when they encounter various forms of content somewhere, to construct your message and pick a strong opening line as a hook that lets the audience have at least one key takeaway. The more important thing is to understand people learn what in a museum is personally meaningful to them. Writing is building bridges for the public to know an artwork as well as new concepts or ideas. Create rooms for them to “read” more from your writing.



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