On Signage

Signs are important. They let you know where the fire exit is or, more importantly, the location of the nearest bathroom. They tell you to stop or to yield. They tell you where you are or where you’re going.

In an exhibit, signs raise questions, provide some answers, and connect ideas. The amalgamated text and icons of an exhibit provide just as much structure as headings and topic sentences in an essay but what works for one medium does not work for the other.

Freeman Tilden, the grandfather of the interpretive division of the National Parks Service, begins his essay on interpretive signage (Chapter 8 of Interpreting Our Heritage, 1957) with some ruminations on epigraphy. This is indicative both of Tilden’s affection for the classics and the combination of wit, poetry, clarity, and brevity that he thinks makes up the perfect sign. Tilden worries that the sign might say too much, that it could confuse readers with too much specificity. He hopes that the sign may be fully understood by all those who pass by (Sorry Freeman, no Greek!).

Tilden considers all of these parameters during the thinking stage, which he thinks should be 90% of the sign-writing process. Perhaps this ratio is what causes Tilden’s own writing to be composed of nearly standalone sentences, a series of guidelines.

“Axiom: whatever is written without enthusiasm will be read without interest.” (93)

In general, the signs Tilden likes use quotations or are composed by his friend Bob Mann “mit beer.” One that he and I both like is the following:

 A Building Stood Here Before 1680.

It was Wrecked in

The Great Indian Uprising.

This House Incorporates

What Remains.

While I’m not a fan of the capitalization protocol in evidence and I don’t know enough about the “Great Indian Uprising” in question to know if that’s an accurate name for it, this label accomplishes what it needs to: It gives us a point of reference in time, tells us what used to be in the space, and acknowledges what is currently there to look at.

So Freeman Tilden’s been telling you since 1957 that that complex string of dependent clauses with a semi-colon that captures all the nuance of your thesis just isn’t going to work on an interpretive panel. Why do you think that is?

Beverly Serrell, veteran exhibit designer, has many answers to that question and others in her second edition of Exhibit Labels. Complex sentences are a no-go for several reasons:

– They are likely to be skipped over for more interesting visuals and pithier labels

– They are not well-suited to being read aloud (as by a parent to a child) or translated

– If used as a central theme of an exhibit, complex sentences can lead to various interpretations of the theme by different members of the team rather than a unified, focused idea.

Exhibit Labels impressed me at every turn, anticipating any problems an exhibit designer, curator, or writer might run into. Broken down into bite-size portions for easy reference, and often employing memorable case-studies as evidence, Serrell’s book will certainly be an asset as my classmates and I tackle several interpretive tasks this semester.

 As I was reading this week, I found the lessons of Exhibit Labels applicable beyond my work for Managing History. I kept seeing connections between my weekend job as a tour guide and this text and vice versa.

 For example, when Serrell was discussing the various pitfalls of segmenting one’s audience (she counsels aiming for the “commonest common denominator”, an idea that will certainly stick with me), I was reminded of an image from one of the PowerPoint presentations I was shown at work. The numbers 1 to 5 appeared on the screen.

 1  2  3  4  5

 The 5’s, explained the presenter, are visitors who worked in issues of criminal justice and prisons (the topic of our historic site) and who are well-versed in the history and the contemporary issues around incarcerations. 4’s are people who, while not employed in fields associated with our topics, are very familiar with the information and come to the site wanting to know more. The 1’s, on the other hand, are totally uninterested or actively hostile to discussing incarceration, perhaps especially our institution’s current emphases and take-away messages. At this point, the presenter clicked his controller and an underline appeared under the 2 and 3.

 1  2  3  4  5

“These are the people we want to try to engage,” he said. “They didn’t come here today expecting to have a conversation about mass incarceration and they might not leave here wanting to talk about it, but if we can give them a tool kit to talk about it at some point, we’ve done our job.”*

I kept remembering that formulation of the audience question and thinking that it might be a nice complement to the various ways others have discussed how to reach a broad swath of the audience (which Serrell summarizes). For instance, I agree that it makes sense to engage various methods (sound, visuals, interactives, etc.) to convey a single piece of information; not only do you ensure that more folks connect to the information but you give individuals multiple ways to approach that datum. How could an aim of reaching the 2’s and 3’s enhance those methods?

I found further fodder in Exhibit Labels that will inform my work. I’ve begun planning the outline for my first hour-long tour and I found many of Serrell’s insights very timely as I think about how to engage my audience and convey information. For instance, we tour guides are encouraged to foster discussion by posing questions. After reading Serrell, I will be mindful to avoid “Why?” questions that essentially have one answer that no visitors are likely to know. Furthermore, when I use rhetorical questions, I will make sure that they are rooted in the sights, sounds, and surroundings which the visitors do have an authority with and that they are questions that have occurred to at least some subset of visitors.

As I craft the theme of my tour, I will remember Serrell’s guidelines for brevity. A wall of text and a thunderous recitation of facts are different experiences but both obstacles to the visitor. There is a limit to the number of ideas I can throw at a tour group, just as there is a limit to the number of introductory paragraphs a museum visitor will read.

Exhibit Labels has won a long-term spot on my bookshelf but you can be sure it will be pulled out for reference many times before this semester is over.


*Obviously this is not remotely verbatim.

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