Whenever I’m asked about the most essential skills in our work, my mind always comes to writing. We do it every day – press releases, work plans, documentation, email, interpretation, all sorts. Yet I rarely see writing treated as an essential skill in itself.
When I’m writing interpretation, I find the best thing to do is to read the writers I want to emulate. Absorbing the way in which words are used around me helps me consider how best to use them in our context.
The best museum interpretation uses words compellingly and succinctly, to magnify what an object can show us. I know no better marriage of words and images than the children’s books of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.
Donaldson is a genius. She has an intrinsic understanding of the simple power of words. She doesn’t over-explain or patronise. Her writing trusts the reader to understand its message, on their own terms. Every word is crafted like a true artist – there isn’t a letter that doesn’t need to be there.
Donaldson’s words are beautifully illuminated by Scheffler. Neither element crowds the other – they reinforce each other’s beauty. The words give space to the images and vice versa.
The Snail and the Whale is their masterpiece. It’s about seeing the beauty of the world and our own place in it, and sharing it with others.
The biggest joy of working in museums is that we can do the same.