Museums are full of objects, but they are usually just as full – too full, often – of text. With a combination of object labels, introductory panels and interactive exhibits, a single display space can feature thousands of words.
Yet almost all of this writing is anonymous; it is very rare to find any kind of label or exhibition authored by a member of museum staff. Instead the ‘voice of the museum’ is presented as objective truth. As those of us who work in museums are well aware, most displays – while they might represent a collective effort on the part of a number of people – are the result of a series of individual decisions. We choose the objects to display, choose where they go and choose what we say about them. We will almost certainly argue with each other about some of these decisions, but the end result will be presented as a single authoritative selection and voice. Often, a ‘house style’ is adopted for text, which – while it may well make displays clearer to understand – will also help to paper over differences of opinion or approach. Even the V&A’s excellent gallery text guidelines, which encourage museum staff to ‘bring in the human element’ and ‘write as you would speak’, stop short of suggesting that you should say who you are.