What Lies Beyond the Paraphrase?: Community Voices in Museums

Do you ever wonder how to better include the perspectives of community members in your exhibitions? This week, Andrea Michelbach shares with the Incluseum highlights of her experience interning for the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, WA. She reflects on community voices and the mechanisms that might encourage or discourage their amplification in museum exhibitions.

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Exhibit text for Under My Skin was jointly written by a community member who is a journalist and by Mikala Woodward, exhibit developer at The Wing. This collaboration made it possible to cover more ground, including individual interviews with all 26 artists represented in the exhibit. Photo credit: The Wing Luke Museum

Exhibit text for Under My Skin was jointly written by a community member who is a journalist and by Mikala Woodward, exhibit developer at The Wing. This collaboration made it possible to cover more ground, including individual interviews with all 26 artists represented in the exhibit. Photo credit: The Wing Luke Museum

These days, it’s common to acknowledge that the perspectives of relevant community members should inform museum work. This plays out in advisory boards, exhibit committees, personal interviews, and more — all good things, to be sure.

But what about the actual voices? Are we letting them all the way in?

I propose that sometimes we can — and should — do more. And that might mean doing less.

A Learning Experience

Last year, while interning at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, I experienced just how tricky it can be to give community members a voice. As first attempts go, I didn’t do so well.

I was working on an art exhibit about race with one of the exhibit developers (the exhibit, Under My Skin: Artists Explore Race in the 21st Century, was up from May to November of this year). As part of the exhibit, we were interested in how a blog might expand the conversation beyond the walls of the gallery.

Since I had previously worked as a writer and editor, I felt game to take on the task of soliciting and preparing content for the blog. We got the blog up and running, and away I went.

My typical process was to contact potential writers, asking if they’d like to propose something for the blog. From there, they sent me a draft, I made edits and sent it back, and the post went up.

I pride myself on knowing a variety of formal styles, proper grammar, and principles of how people read on the web, and I considered that knowledge a real asset. I was helping writers. I was facilitating their voices—even making them better through my expertise.

Then I got this response, as part of a longer email, to a round of my edits:

You put a lot of dashes in, which simply isn’t my writing style. I kept one or two of these, but these are really a personal preference. I prefer to use dashes sparingly, and commas generously. I want it to still sound like me, after all.

I had been editing community voices into my voice. To make matters worse in this instance, I had been a white editor with a red pen turning a black author’s work into something I deemed “more correct.”

I felt terrible. But I was also intensely grateful. The author had gently reminded me that I was doing this for voices plural, not consistency of voice singular or style of blogness. I had moved from a world of correctness to one about conversation. Needless to say, I proceeded with my remaining blog management in a far different mindset.

Photo credit: The Wing Luke Museum

Photo credit: The Wing Luke Museum

The Logistics of Megaphones

The issues I was grappling with on a micro-scale are no stranger to The Wing. As a community based museum, it takes community voices very seriously.

All exhibits at The Wing are developed with the help of a Community Advisory Committee, or CAC, made up of people who have interest, expertise, or personal experience with a given topic. This group determines an exhibit’s objectives, themes, and content. They give their input to the museum—and in many instances, someone from the CAC writes the actual exhibit text.

I spoke with Michelle Kumata, Mikala Woodward, and Jessica Rubenacker, in the exhibit department, about the process of letting community members write the label text of exhibits.

So how is a label writer chosen for an exhibit?

Michelle: It depends on the exhibit. Typically, it’s a CAC member, but not always. Sometimes a CAC member recommends a writer who has familiarity with the topic. Sometimes the exhibit writers are writers or journalists by trade.

For the “I Am Filipino” exhibit, the writer was Filipino, which really helped the text resonate with that particular audience and also provided an authenticity for visitors who might not have as much familiarity with Filipino culture.

Mikala: Sometimes one of us ends up doing the writing, and that can be really difficult because you’re trying to hold all of the various CAC members’ perspectives in your head at once and to honor the whole community process that went into getting the exhibit to its final stage.

When a community member is writing the text, what role do you, as exhibit developers, play in the label writing process?

Michelle: Really, we serve as facilitators and provide a professional perspective—for instance, making sure the text flows and will draw in readers.

Mikala: We want to be sure the text doesn’t sound too academic—which can be alienating for many visitors—and that it includes any background information that visitors might need to understand what’s going on. Sometimes writers from the community use “insider” terms that a general audience won’t understand. We have to take particular care that the text is approachable.

Jessica: There’s also interest in consistency of style and voice between exhibits. We may give writers past exhibit label text as an example and show them a range from different exhibits.

So is it easier to have someone else do the writing?

Mikala: No, not really. There are typically multiple rounds of edits. In making edits, we need to be really deliberate about preserving and respecting the author’s voice.

Michelle: And we need to be really transparent about the “whys” behind our edits. It take a lot of time—maybe even more than doing the writing ourselves would—but this sort of process is how we do things anyway at The Wing.

Jessica: It’s really rewarding for the writers, seeing their words up on the wall of the museum. And having people who are involved in the community provides a more authentic perspective. You get to let someone present their own story how they want it to be presented. As an added bonus, writers who have that rewarding experience become ambassadors for the museum. Their positive experiences have far-reaching implications.

Mikala: Having someone else do the writing also means we’re less likely to have a “gotcha” moment. Members of a given community are more likely to know what they’re talking about than I am as an outsider. They’re less likely to miss something, and even if they do, at least it is coming from within the community.

When I asked what Mikala, Michelle, and Jessica what advice they would give museum professionals who are working with community writers for the first time, they shared the following tips:

  • Start sooner than you think you need to.
  • Build in extra time.
  • Have the writer attend as many exhibit planning meetings as possible, so they know the process and backstory of the exhibit.
  • Provide the writer with a clear outline (for instance, how many panels there will be and the approximate word count of each label).
  • Stick to your timeline, if possible.
  • Be up front with the writer that there will be a lot of back and forth about the text.
  • Teach writers through editing, and be careful to not be condescending.
  • Get to know the writer, and pay attention to what he or she needs.
  • Pay the writer, if possible. It’s a lot of work to write label text, and it helps bind the agreement between the writer and the museum.
  • Acknowledge the writer on the exhibit credit panel, and give them a shout-out at the opening reception.

Please Share Your Thoughts

Giving community voices more expression means learning new ways to manage and value our partnerships with those we serve and represent. Museum professionals and community members both have specific sets of skills, experiences, and resources to contribute. Contributions on both sides must be honored and empowered. When that happens, we open the door to results that are far stronger than we could have produced alone.

What do you think? I am still new to this process but would like to hear your experiences working with community voices. How have you defined — and represented — those voices? How do we do this, and when should we? What concerns around this topic have you encountered? What hope can you share?

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Before venturing into the museum field, Andrea Michelbach worked as a writer and editor in consumer healthcare publishing, which she found both more straightforward and less rewarding. She now works at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Education and Communications. You can contact her at andreamichelbach@gmail.com

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2 comments

  1. Thanks for this great post. We are just at the end of the run of a really wonderful history exhibition called Santa Cruz is in the Heart, which is based on essays by a local author/historian/poet with a very idiosyncratic voice. It was my task to take amazing 3-5,000 word stories and distill them into 200 word exhibit panels. It was the hardest label writing I’ve ever done, because I REALLY wanted to honor Geoffrey’s voice and the spirit of his essays in the labels. The result were panels that gave tight glimpses into the stories instead of synopses that washed away the personal voice. I had to learn that doing “less” allowed us to do what was most important: letting the voice and the spirit shine through.

    I’ll be thinking about your post, and this experience, as we embark on more projects that showcase community voices.

  2. Thank you, Nina. That sounds like a huge challenge! Doing “less” is definitely not the easiest.

    What do you think about length when it comes to community voices? One things I’ve been considering is how aware visitors are of whose voice they’re getting in the galleries. Would they rather read a longer label that is clearly “by” someone—especially a peer or fellow community member—or a short label that follows the conventions of excellent label writing?

    Of course, authentic voice and best practices don’t necessarily have to exclude each other, but that area between the two is a place I’d love to see some more experimentation. Best of luck as you continue to explore the territory!

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