by Tegan Kehoe

This fall, the museum where I work is having an exterior restoration project done, and this means the building will be enveloped by scaffolding with dark mesh covers. The gallery, which is largely lit by natural light, will be considerably dimmer. After a staff meeting that included a lot of joking around about lending out headlamps in admissions, a few of us realized that now would be a great time to create large print exhibit guides, which had been in the back of our minds for a while. I volunteered to spearhead the effort.

I set about looking for resources and examples to make the guides as useful as possible. In doing so, I learned that there are few universally-accepted standards in this area. In addition to making the font large, it is important to print on opaque, non-glossy paper, to minimize special formatting, and to use a clear and readable font, but often, I found I just had to read what many different groups had to say and choose what seemed to make the most sense for this particular project. I wish we had a focus group of testers, but it doesn’t look like that will happen.

One thing I found challenging – that I didn’t expect to – was writing visual descriptions of items and images in the exhibits. Several of the resources I read recommended doing this, and described the process a bit, although most of the information was geared towards people giving live guided tours. Some of the advice was straightforward, such as “use relative sizes rather than measurements to give people a better sense of what’s there.”

However, the more short visual descriptions I wrote, the more I realized that the process goes against some of my training as a museum educator. I was trying to pick out one or two important points to mention for each item, and keeping in mind that the target audience for the large print guides is visitors with partial vision, I often chose finer details, like the fact that the tea set has a light red flower pattern. The exhibition this was for has a lot of images of people, so I found myself expressing their demeanor in a few words: “a man in formal 18th-century clothing with a stern expression on his face.” I’m used to asking visitors what they think of a portrait subject’s demeanor, not telling them what I think. It’s a thin and strange line between being neutral enough in these descriptions that visitors still have plenty of room to interpret for themselves and being evocative enough that visitors can mentally fill in the details that are difficult for them to see.

We just got the guides printed this past week, so I don’t yet know how they will be received by the visitors, but it feels like it was a worthwhile project. I learned a lot and hopefully visitors will now be able to learn more, too.