Plain language in museums: Breaking the “dumbing-down” myth

Some of you may know me as a copyeditor and language services professional; some of you may know that I worked in museums for nearly a decade. As a museum education professional, I was (and still am) passionate and curious about how museums communicate with their audiences, how knowledge is shared in museums, and how the content in museums is presented and engaged with.

In this blog post series, I would like to explore how language is used in museums. What are the implications of how museum texts are written? What’s the best way to write for visitors? How can museums achieve their goals through the language they use? In this post in particular, I think it’s important to address a common misconception that clear writing means “dumbing down” content. I’ll also discuss the advantages of embracing plain language in the museum context.

The concept of “dumbing down” is dumb

Museums often have competing goals: they want to be open and inclusive, but authoritative and knowledgeable; they want to focus on visitors and their needs, but still center the collection; they want to educate and inform, but allow for experience and open interpretation.

Many—if not all—of these conflicts within museums tend to be false dichotomies. Museums don’t really need to choose between being inclusive and being knowledgeable, for example—they can be both inclusive and knowledgeable. I would even argue that inclusivity can add to the knowledge of the institution (if museums collect stories from the community to add different interpretations to their collection, for example).

In this blog post, I would like to talk more about the false dichotomy between writing clear, plain texts and conveying a breadth and depth of knowledge. When discussing writing in a more accessible way, some museum practitioners (or museums as institutions) interpret this as “dumbing down” content for the audience. I want to erase this term from conversations about writing and translation, and in conversations about language in museums.

According to Merriam-Webster, to dumb down means “to lower the level of difficulty and the intellectual content of (something, such as a textbook)” or “to lower the general level of intelligence in.” For example, some people think that the Kardashians have dumbed down society.

Clear language does not diminish the intellectual content of the museum or the message of the text. Clear language does not decrease the audience’s intellect. Clear language makes texts more accessible, and more accessible texts mean that the message—the content—is more accessible. This is important! As professionals working in or with museums, we need to remember that the message and the readers’ needs to understand the message are most important.

The V&A: A Ten Point Guide is widely respected as a standard for language in museums, especially in gallery texts and wall labels. The V&A seeks

to write gallery text that is captivating, illuminating, and comprehensible for a wide audience. The goal is difficult but not impossible to reach. To achieve this, we do not have to ‘dumb down’ our scholarship and collections. Instead, we have to recognise visitors’ needs and interests, and use the devices of good writing to communicate our ideas. (V&A, p. 4)

Many of the standards and tips outlined in the V&A guide align with the principles of plain language.

As part of the SENSE 2020 Jubilee Workshop Series, John Linnegar held a workshop on Plain Language Principles to Creating Accessible, Reader-Friendly Texts. In this workshop, we mostly focused on academic and policy texts, and museums fit well in that context. Museum curators are academically trained and want to communicate as much information as possible in their texts—wall texts, gallery labels, catalogue texts, brochures, etc. I reference this workshop throughout the blog to underpin the principles of plain language.

Linnegar pointed out that academics tend to “dress up” their writing. This “dressed-up” writing hides the voice of the writer and, in the end, the overly complicated language sacrifices the accessibility of the ideas in the writing.

Let’s break down the principles of plain language and outline how these apply to language in museums.

Sentences should be clear “at first reading”

Especially in a museum context, visitors shouldn’t have to pull out their phones to look up words or concepts. The simple fact is that visitors are not likely to put in that extra effort and then the message of the wall text is missed.

“Make the words speak for themselves as much as possible” (Linnegar).

Adopt a reader focus

Plain language is a “communication style that focuses on the audience’s needs” (Linnegar).

During the 2020 National Museum Publishing Seminar, inclusive language and visitor-centered practices were a theme throughout several presentations and discussions. During a session about conceptualizing digital publications, one of the presenters discussed a “user-centered approach to planning and design” based on the design thinking process. Instead of focusing on what information needs to be told through the publication, the museum staff considered what users’ needs were and how users would use the publication.

The design thinking approach works like this:

1. Research your users’ needs (empathize) -> 2. State your users’ needs and problems (define) -> 3. Brainstorm solutions (ideate) -> 4. Build a model of that solution (prototype) -> 5. Test it with your users and repeat as necessary!

This process puts the audience or visitors at the forefront. When writing museum texts, we must first consider what our audience’s needs are. This doesn’t mean that the content is completely lost, but to ask how that content can best be communicated to the intended audience. Want to tell children about dinosaurs? Think about their needs: for instance, wall labels closer to the ground, brochures for their parents to follow along, and simpler words (but, in my experience, three-year-olds are way better with dinosaur names than I am).

This design thinking approach matches with what the V&A advises: “know your audience.” Museums often want to reach as many people as possible. To do so, museums must write in an accessible way so the barriers to engage with the text aren’t too high. If the audience for a particular event or exhibition is more specific, the writing style can be changed to match that target group’s needs (see picture from the V&A guide below).

Chart with information about how to write for different audiences.
Writing for museum audiences. Source: V&A guide.

The majority of readers of English are not native speakers (Linnegar). I want to elaborate on this point more in a separate blog post, but the fact that many museum visitors are tourists—people who are from abroad, people who are multilingual, people who are maybe a bit tired from traveling—is already a great argument for the use of plain language in museums.

Tone of voice

As part of the section on tone of voice, the V&A guide includes: write as you would speak, be active not passive, and keep it short and snappy.

Write as you would speak

  • Use words that are clear and understandable in everyday language. Some words are used differently in academic contexts, but err on the side of using words that have commonly understood meanings in daily language.

  • Some difficult words or jargon are not immediately recognizable. You can look up “plain language” word choice lists online, such as this one.

  • Replace polysyllabic words (words with three or more syllables) with bisyllabic (two syllables) or monosyllabic words (one syllable).

  • Avoid archaisms such as “hereby” and “thus.”

  • Use active verbs instead of nounisms (nouns derived from verbs). Using active verbs instead of nounisms creates more active sentences that are easier to understand. Nounisms also mask meaning and cause wordiness.

Be active not passive

  • Use active voice as much as possible. The active voice starts with the subject: subject-verb-object (S-V-O) construction. The passive voice places the object first: object-verb-subject (O-V-S) construction).

  • Active voice tells the reader right away who the actor is, so readers don’t have to work to decode sentences. Passive voice can also obscure the agent, or subject, in the sentence (who did the doing?).

  • Active voice often makes for shorter sentences.

Keep it short and snappy

  • The ideal sentence length is 18–22 words.

  • Avoid embedding clauses or phrases in a sentence.

  • To fix lengthy, complicated sentences, “split and reconnect” (Linnegar): look to split sentences at conjunctions, relative pronouns, and present participles. Then you can use a few more words to elaborate the idea or to make it clearer.

  • Workshop attendees often misread longer, complex sentences, which just goes to show the advantages of clear writing and plain language!

More plain language tips

Avoid inverted conditional sentences (sentences beginning with “if”).

Avoid unnecessary words.

Avoid dense sentences. A noun string of four or more words is too dense. Readers will have to read from the right to find the noun and then read to the left to understand how the noun has been described. Add prepositions for clarity. Sometimes this can result in more words, but it’s worth it for the plain language!

Use vertical lists. These are visually clearer than amassing a long list of words in a block of text.

Avoid interrupters if possible. This breaks the flow of reading and can make understanding the surrounding sentence much more difficult. (I am so guilty of breaking this rule all the time in my own writing!)

Place subject and verb close together.

Use positive rather than negative statements.

In addition to providing a wealth of tips and examples, the V&A includes this simple exercise to help judge how clear writing is:

Think about how you would describe something you love to a friend. What words would you use and in what order? Write these down. Usually, we do not use Latinate words or passive constructions when talking. We are immediate and informal, because this type of language is easier to process. A good test is to read your label out loud when you have written it. If you stumble over words or get bored, you will know what visitors will experience when reading your label and you can identify where to make changes. There is sometimes a fear in museums that simplifying language means ‘dumbing down’. This can happen, but when it does the fault often lies in the content not in the language itself. (V&A, p. 17)

Again, dumbing down is a dumb concept. As Linnegar emphasized in his plain language workshop, plain language is not dumbed down or bland: “the message is important and not the fancy language wrapped around it.”

Let’s recap.

Benefits of plain language

  • Plain means clear and straightforward; it avoids obscurity, inflated vocabulary, and convoluted sentence construction (Linnegar).

  • Plain language makes writing more accessible and cleaner for readers.

  • Plain language broadens the reach of the text.

  • If readers have to put in a lot of effort to understand a sentence, they might gloss over it and miss essential information.

Curious about plain language, or language in museums? Or have more questions? I’d love to hear from you! If you want to stay tuned for my next blog post, subscribe to my newsletter.