Museum texts: Communication frameworks
by Louise Ravelli, Routledge, 2006. Distributed in Australia by Palgrave Macmillan.
ISBN 0415284309 (pbk). RRP A$37.95

review by Thérèse Weber
Museum texts book cover

Museums as texts, and texts in museums, are the subjects of Louise Ravelli's book Museum Texts: Communication Frameworks. Published in 2006 by Routledge as one of its long-running Museum Meanings titles (and surely it is time to revamp those unappealing monochromatic cover designs), the book is written for all those who produce text within a museum or exhibition context. Ravelli's interest is in the meanings that are actively (and sometimes unintentionally) constructed in the process of selecting, organising, interpreting and displaying objects, and she analyses these meanings using three interconnecting frameworks: organisational, interactional and representational. These categories, which are derived from Michael Halliday's social-semiotic approach to language, form the framework on which the book is written, as well as being offered to the reader as tools for better understanding and generating their own texts.

The major part of the book is devoted to language in general and exhibition label text in particular, and this discussion is opened out in the last couple of chapters to apply to meanings communicated beyond language, such as through exhibition layout and building design. For me, as an editor, it was Ravelli's discussion of the written word that most engaged my interest, and I was hooked early on because, in introducing her topic, Ravelli promises to offer 'specific language advice' and to debunk 'a few precious rules' (p. 5). For those of us whose job it is to force text to conform to the sometimes overly rigid constraints of an institutional style guide, such a promise is very tantalising.

Putting it in very simple terms, curators write exhibition text with an eye to content, editors manipulate that text to conform to their own sense of 'good writing' and institutionally imposed standards of style and grammar, while graphic designers place the text according to visual aesthetics, guided by the individual design principles of a particular exhibition. In this book, Ravelli looks at exhibition text from a linguist's perspective and, in so doing, offers a fresh interpretation of what constitutes 'good' exhibition text across the spectrum of content (the appropriate level of complexity and ways of representing particular views of content), expression (language choice) and design (how exhibition and label design contribute to the meaning being made).

Ravelli challenges the reader accustomed to the traditional grammatical terminology of style guides and editors' manuals to look at sentence structure and language flow using a linguist's vocabulary, or 'metalanguage'. Instead of nouns, verbs, etc., text is analysed in terms of 'Theme' and 'New' (p. 40); or 'Process, Participant and Circumstance' (p. 115); or simply broken down into the number of lexical items in a clause (p. 56), depending upon the aspect of language that Ravelli is commenting upon. Exhibition text is analysed from the top down: at the macro level of genre or text types, at the intermediate level of paragraph and heading structure (and how aspects of design are used to reinforce the linguistic structure of a label), and at the micro level of the organisation of clauses and word order. Ravelli is particularly interested in sentence flow — why is it, for example, that the information flow in the following label breaks down?

Modern gamelan gadon, or chamber grouping, with instruments in the slendro tuning system, from Surakarta, Central Java. In performance, the group would include a female singer and flute player. The male musicians would also sing. Gamelan have no conductor, being led by a drummer or rehab player. Gadon ensembles can accompany wayang kulit (shadow plays) or perform at private social functions such as weddings. (p. 39)

By anchoring her analysis with actual examples of exhibition text, such as the above, drawn from a number of different institutions in Australia and internationally, Ravelli avoids the danger of becoming overly academic, esoteric or theoretical.

In terms of specific advice to writers (and debunking those 'precious rules'), Ravelli is critical of those who advocate a 'plain English' style, without offering concrete guidelines for generating clear text. Her criticism extends to some of the rules of plain English that are applied to text unthinkingly and regardless of context: the use of variety, the employment of active verbs, and the avoidance of long sentences and jargon. In an extended discussion of passive sentences that becomes a recurring theme in the book, Ravelli not only shows the aspiring writer where and when it is appropriate to employ the passive (particularly when enabling a smooth flow of information and for focusing sentences on a particular topic), but also how use of the passive can operate subtly to shift 'blame', or mitigate responsibility, and powerfully illustrates this point using comparative examples of exhibition text representing different views of Indigenous histories.

I enjoyed reading Ravelli's interpretive readings of the complex texts that are exhibitions and galleries, in which she neatly extends the application of her organisational, interactional and representational frameworks to apply to non-verbal elements. A ride on an escalator can be both invitation to enter, and promise of excitement to come, or a directive to follow an indicated path. An exaggerated display, such as a gigantic globe of the world in the midst of empty space, positions the institution authoritatively, and contributes to the visitor's anticipation. Lighting and colour add to mood and can unify or divide an exhibition space.

Ravelli goes to some lengths to downplay the scope of Museum Texts, reiterating at several points what she has not included, and reminding the reader that what she is offering is simply a framework, rather than a comprehensive analysis or an instructional manual. In the final wash-up, perhaps there are no really earth-shattering revelations in this book: Ravelli wants us to produce engaging exhibitions that interpret objects accurately and in ways that are consistent with an exhibition's clearly articulated overarching message. Exhibition text should be written at an appropriate level of complexity both for the target audience of the exhibition, and the type of subject matter to which it relates. Writers and editors should be wary of hidden messages that may be conveyed just by a choice of word or tense. But in her discussion and explication of what makes text truthful and accurate, engaging and well-written, Ravelli succeeds in objectifying advice that is often provided as a series of subjective and vague platitudes.

Thérèse Weber is senior editor at the National Museum of Australia.