6 Golden Rules for Writing Accessible Museum Labels
Mohammed Rahman from UCL Culture, shares six tips on how to format good accessible museum labels, drawing on his first four months on placement as part of STEP
24 April 2020
My placement at UCL Culture has been split between their exhibitions and engagement teams. So far, I’ve been involved in the production and install of eight exhibits, ranging from temporary exhibitions in the North and South Cloisters to a permanent display in The Petrie Museum of Archaeology. I’ve also facilitated seven schools outreaches both on and off campus. It’s been busy and I’ve learned tonnes already!
One such outreach was a design workshop for the Grant Museum Takeover Day, which is a programme run by the engagement team at UCL Culture. It is led by Emma Bryant, Manager of Engagement and supported by Sara Rayment and Maja Neske of the Institute of Education (MA Museums and Galleries in Education at the UCL Institute of Education). The programme invites pupils aged 9-10 from east London schools to explore the Grant Museum’s collections and write the labels they would like to see in the museum. It’s a great opportunity for young people to make the space their own and also for the museum to learn how to make their collections more accessible.
Back in March, I delivered an accessible label making workshop at George Mitchell Primary School linked to the Grant Museum Takeover programme. This came at a time in my placement where I’d also been formatting large print exhibition guides at UCL Art Museum and the Grant Museum. In addition to this, I’d had Accessibility Awareness training from Goss Consultancy Ltd., a consultancy firm that works to make more accessible workplaces, policies and services. The magic word ‘accessibility’ is now tattooed onto my brain and I’ve been inspired to share what I’ve learnt on the way.
Of course, this blog post limits itself to visual methods of text representation, which is really one small part of having an accessible exhibition. An exhibition with good access will also have multisensory and multilingual formats for their information, like audio descriptions, BSL interpreters and multilingual texts on hand.
Without further ado, here are my golden rules for making accessible museum labels:
1. Design for your audience
Keep the needs of your visitors in mind. As Nick Goss, Director of Goss Consultancy Ltd. taught us, there’s no such thing as a 100% accessible experience and dialogue is the way to mitigate that margin. I’ve learnt that two key parts of the accessibility mindset are empathy and asking. Empathy is stepping into other people’s shoes and not taking your own experience and needs for granted. Then the asking- instead of imagining what other people need, asking people with accessibility needs directly and putting in the research is what gets results. Where possible, make sure you sense-check your exhibition text and formatting across a body of editors- the more diverse the better.
2. Text size
A good size fits roughly 10 words per line. For body text, keep a minimum of size 16. It’s important to bear in mind how close the text is to your visitors and whether will be at eye-level. Of course, eye level is quite subjective as it needs to account for the varying needs younger audiences, wheelchair users and tall people- a happy middle needs to be struck. To mitigate this, exhibitions should ALWAYS have a large print guide available in a handheld format
3.Prevent information overload
It’s important that accessibility is inherent by design. This runs on two axes, length and content. First, tackle the length of your text by setting a strict word count. A good label does not exceed 50 words of body text and even then, the fewer the better. From meetings with artists and researchers, I’ve learnt that a person in the know may see the relevance of every little detail, but that won’t be apparent to the general public- it’s important to be brutal when cutting down texts. Following on from this, the content should be in clear and simple language, and where technical terms are necessary, they should always feature definitions. Writing in a way that reads like speech is good practice, so read it aloud! In that vein, where possible, avoid academic language.
4. Spacing and contrast
The appearance of a text panel at first glance can make or break an exhibition. Use the whole of the label and have an even margin. Make sure there is a good amount of colour contrast between the background and text. If it’s hard to engage with visually, be that looking cramped or having text that blends into the background, the exhibition’s impact will be lost. Text should always be on a block colour where possible as it’s risky business to overlay text onto images as the two will visually compete and undermine each other.
Use sans-serif fonts like Helvetica, Calibri, Myriad Pro and Arial. Some designers may avoid these fonts based on preconceived ideas of them lacking personality- I know I used to- but having readable text is a priority over having a pretty text. There’s an argument that the removal of the serif shaves off extra details, and makes the shape each letter appear more distinct and clear which can be a massive help for people who have dyslexia. On that note, also avoid all capitals as this makes letters less distinct from one another which can also be difficult for people with dyslexia to engage with. Remember, there are ways of injecting visual personality that don’t compromise the clarity of the font such as borders and illustrations.
It’s better to think of exhibition texts as storytelling as opposed to a presentation of all the information you have, order and hierarchy are crucial. First and foremost, the most useful information needs to stand out- consider putting the most crucial information as early in the text as possible. This makes sure that even if your audience doesn’t read everything, they’ll have a decent idea of what you’re trying to convey. Introduce hierarchy between headings and the body text by formatting them to different sizes and using bold and underlined text. On that note, keep your difference in formats to a minimum as a coherent aesthetic translates into a clearer textual voice. Finally, you can also give the option for your audience to delve deeper by redirecting them to online resources. Taking the exhibition beyond its physical site is a great way of including mutlilayered engagement.