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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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If you've been to museum exhibits, you know that introductions, explanations, and details about the photos, images, and objects on display are usually displayed as text printed on walls or shown in cases. If you're interested and you like to read, you've probably read many of these panels. If not, you may have just breezed past them. But one thing you can know for sure – a lot of effort went into deciding exactly what those words are.

The journey from concept to final words is long and thoughtful

Visitors reading text panel
Visitors reading one of many text panels placed throughout the Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals. Image courtesy:Smithsonian Inatitution, National Museum of Natural History

In the Ocean Hall exhibit, there are many panels with words. There are different kinds of panels – some are introductions to galleries, some explain a group of fossils in a case, and some draw your attention to a particular kind of animal or technology tool used to study the ocean. Each kind of panel has text of a certain size and a certain number of words.

Text panels in the museum
Text panels help tell the story of the specimens they accompany. These text panels in the Life in the Ancient Seas exhibit tell of one of three great extinctions in our planet's history. Image courtesy: Mark de Bullet

Even though it may seem to the average museum-goer that there are a lot of words, each of these text blocks had to be selected and whittled down from a lot of information. From curators to advisors to museum designers and educators, everyone involved in the ocean hall has a lot of passion about the ocean and a lot of information they want to pass along to museum visitors. But there is only so much space and visitors have only so much time. So Ocean Hall teams had to part with many, many words.

Meet the writer

To assist with this task, the museum hired an exhibit writer whose job it was to take the pages and pages of information on the ocean and distill each topic down into what will become the words you see on the Hall's walls. His name will not appear on any bylines or credits, but you can learn it here. It's Paul Rosenthal.

Paul Rosenthal
Paul Rosenthal hard at work. Image courtesy:Paul Rosenthal

Paul has been working with exhibits and museums for more than 25 years. He's not an expert on oceans, or for that matter, on the Old Testament, World War II, or how to make wine – some of the many exhibits he's worked on. His job is actually not to be an expert, but rather to think like a museum visitor. He had to translate waves of ocean information into short blurbs that transmit the main messages curators wanted to get across in a way visitors will easily and quickly understand.

How did he do that? The museum gave Paul what it calls “content documents.” These documents broke down the information in each gallery into chunks. They helped Paul develop a hierarchy for what information is most important (largest text size, but usually fewest number of words), next-most important, and so forth. They described for him what objects each text block would illuminate, and what would be nearby. They gave him the important points that needed to be conveyed. And they told him how many words he had to work with, which usually ranged from 45 to 70 words per block.

Translating from many words to few

Sample page of script
Sample page of Paul's writing for the ocean hall with edits Image courtesy:Paul Rosenthal

Paul took these documents and read them carefully. But when he sat down at his computer to write, he didn't just try to cut words from the text he'd been given. He read the content until he feels he understood it thoroughly himself. Then, he started from scratch to craft 50 (or however many space allows) words that got the main ideas across. His goal was to explain these main ideas to someone who starts out not understanding this information: someone, like the average museum visitor, who is not an expert on the ocean. His other goal was to make the language interesting, entertaining, and readable.

In this way, Paul pointed out that it is actually a benefit not to be an expert on the topic he's writing on, because that way he works much harder to understand it himself. The idea is that whatever can help him grasp the main idea, that's what will help many others as well. When you know a lot about a topic, like an exhibit curator does, you tend to want to share a lot of facts, and while valuable, those may distract from the main message or make the text too long.

“Before and after” example

Before: This was the original document on coasts:

Shallow waters fringe the continents – and islands – hosting the ocean's greatest diversity of ecosystems ranging from tropical coral reefs to glacial bays. There, ocean life is also most dense and most diverse. For most people, the coast is the gateway to the ocean – the part of our ocean planet most familiar to us. But the coasts we love are the ocean realm that's been most changed by our activities. That's not surprising since nearly half of the world's population lives within 150 km (93 miles) of a coastline. And the numbers continue to grow.

This became…

After:

Familiar Waters: Shores & Shallows

Where land meets sea, the ocean is familiar to us…and most affected by us.

Shallow waters near continents and islands are our gateway to the ocean. That's where we work and play. Nearly half the world's people live within 150 kilometers (93 miles) of a coastline.

These waters support the greatest variety of ocean ecosystems. Here, ocean life is most abundant and diverse. You depend on these coastal ecosystems. You also affect them. How well do you know them?

Traveling through the process

Once Paul had written a draft, he passed it back to the museum for approval. There, it went through multiple levels of review. At every level, there were suggestions and edits, which then came back to Paul for revision. In general, Paul got it right. And if not, he rewrote it until it was approved.

Of all the projects Paul's worked on, he says the ocean hall is unique in its scope and ambition. It is a large hall that covers a huge number of topics.

“Each area of the Hall could be an exhibit in and of itself,” Paul says.

The completed text for the Hall is a book of more than 100 pages. When everyone had approved this book, the text went to graphic designers for layout and was eventually printed on exhibit panels that were installed in the exhibit.

Curious what will those final words are? Come visit the ocean hall to find out!

Careers

Interested in a job like Paul's? According to Paul, do a lot of writing, and get good at it. When you write, read your writing out loud. Test how it sounds. Be comfortable talking with different kinds of people. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Enjoy and practice explaining things to people. And it doesn't hurt to be a little funny.

The best part of the job, Paul says, is learning a lot about new topics. In this way, every job he's done has been different and interesting. When writing about these topics, it's especially satisfying to find a really good analogy that helps to explain a process or technique that may be quite complicated or technical for visitors. The hardest part, on the other hand, is cutting down huge quantities of information and sometimes feeling not necessarily qualified to make those decisions.

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