Why should museums think about texts? What is a good text for a museum? Can text help overcome lack of confidence in experts and science? The team of the Copywriter/Levelup consulting agency reflect on their collaboration with Pauls Stradiņš Museum of the History of Medicine creating new texts for the museum website.
Keywords: text as transformative tool; museum website
Text is quite frequently a tool for thought: many of us are better at articulating ideas when we write rather than speak or think. In the case of the Museum of the History of Medicine, text is also a transformative tool. A new website text combined with a new design became for the museum the first step on the journey of evolving into a contemporary and socially relevant concept of development.
Although a museum is not a business project, the communication goals of museums share some similarity with those of an enterprise. For business enterprises and museums alike, the textual and visual communication objectives are two-fold: direct ‒ attracting an audience, and indirect ‒ shaping and consolidating their identity.
In this sense, a quality text written for a museum meets the same criteria as a good text for a business or a newspaper. The recipe for a good text is balance between informativity and succinctness, exactness and attractiveness, between the narrative and argumentation. There is also a certain individual character to a good text, which makes itself known through sentence structure, phrasing, choice of words, rhythm of the text and other harder-to-articulate parameters. The vivider the character, the more distinctive the resulting brand image.
Over the recent years, it has become quite noticeable that Latvian businesses and organisations are increasingly joining the general trend of cultivating their verbal identity alongside the visual one, aware of the fact that the voice that a brand uses to address its audience does not shape its image any less than the logo or the colour scheme. For this voice to be recognisable to the audience and facilitate a positive emotional connection with the organisation, coherence of communication is crucial. If, for instance, in the communication practice of a cultural institution friendly and informal language alternates with dry bureaucratic lingo, the confusion caused by this discord will definitely not contribute to the confidence of the audience in the institution in general. It has to be said that it is the bureaucratic style that is the most widespread sin in the communication practice of Latvian institutions and businesses ‒ across all the areas of activity. Getting to the bottom of the sources and popularity of ‘bureaucratese’ would take quite a few blog posts; it is quite obvious, however, that a huge role is played by inability or reluctance by the employees/administration to see their organisation not from the inside but from the outside, through the eyes of their audience.
In the case of museums dedicated to medicine (or other sciences), the text must also meet a certain super-objective. It must convince and engage the audience in a situation where the public trust in experts and expert knowledge is extremely fragile. We believe that it means first and foremost a total ban on arrogance. The museum’s texts should not speak to its audience condescendingly and treat the reader as someone who needs to be ‘enlightened’, someone on the receiving end of instruction or even re-education. Most often, textual arrogance takes the form of using long and complex phrases and specific terminology and is an offence frequently committed unintentionally: the author is either unaware of the impact of this mode of expression on the reader or is unaccustomed to using other stylistic means and does not attempt to search for any.
How do you put things simply without trivialising them? It is one of the most complicated problems in writing of any genre, and yet as often as not these concerns of oversimplification prove unfounded. An idea usually does not lose any of its power when explained to the audience in an accessible and intriguing manner; nor does this detract from the expert’s authority: on the contrary, it is bolstered by this approach. The identity of medical, economic, museum and many other kinds of experts has historically formed around the exclusivity of this type of knowledge (‘I know things that you don’t understand’); it is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain this hierarchy today. If we substitute generosity for this exclusivity, we get something more like ‘I can tell you in such a way that you will understand it.’ And it can become a foundation for a new, more contemporary version of expert identity.
As an identity carrier, text presumes certain clarity regarding the type of said identity, namely, a somewhat certain and established answer to the question: ‘What are we?’. But what about cases where there is no answer, or it is still a work in progress? One way of going about it would be introducing the planned changes first and then, once the desirable goal has been reached, start generating the new communication material. Although a rational and economic approach, it often proves impossible in real life.
In practice, change frequently refuses to become reality until a conceptual frame has been provided and a vision of a potential future has been outlined (dreamt up). And that is why we were happy to agree to take part in this adventure initiated by the Medicine Museum ‒ creating a new website before the (self)redefinition of the museum was complete.
This approach is counterintuitive, particularly for a generation socialised within the paradigm of ‘being determines consciousness’. It is often viewed with suspicion: could this shift in communication be yet another instance of merely ‘giving the façade a lick of paint’, a surrogate for genuine, substantial change? And yet a new text, new design and new photos are often exactly the very thing that makes substantial change possible by helping both the museum workers and the target audience enter into the spirit of the new image and find confidence that change is not only necessary but also possible and realistically achievable.
This approach demands a special mindset from everybody who is involved: they must be aware of the open nature of the process while providing a quality product that meets the objectives of the museum and the needs of its audience as much as possible. In these cases, a crucial role is played by the argumentation skills of the team members, their ability to listen to each other, find common ground and be on the same wavelength, bouncing ideas off each other. A similar understanding of what is good (a good design, a good text, etc.) contributes to a successful interaction. In our collaboration with the museum, this meeting of minds was reached right from the outset; moreover, the passion that the museum team showed as they presented their bold vision of change set the tone for the voice of the new website in general.
We believe that warm engagement with the subject of the text is as paramount to a good result as harmonious teamwork. Perhaps it can be imitated or engineered but there was no need for that in this case: the exhibits, the journey and history of the museum itself are genuinely so captivating and inspiring that we cannot wait to keep writing about them.
Lots of quests and lots of turning points await the museum in the foreseeable future: it has embarked on its process of change at a time when the public perception of both museums and medical science in general is undergoing transformation. A new website is a small yet crucially important step on this meandering road that we are going to follow with great interest and emotional investment. And we will be happy to continue our collaboration in the future, exploring the unique holdings of the museum further and further.
Published: May, 2021