Now here’s an oxymoron in most interpreters’ view: how can any panel that reads like ‘a book on the wall’ ever be good? And of course these interpreters are right in pointing out that rows upon rows of text are highly unlikely to be read and they will probably fail to get a memorable and relevant message across. In other words, such panels are simply bad practice .
However, bear with me for a moment. Last weekend I visited Rhondda Heritage Park in Pontypridd, South East Wales. I didn’t have a lot of time so I only managed to explore their free of charge exhibition area. Included in it was what they termed ‘an exhibition’ about the Tynewydd mining disaster of 1877. I put ‘exhibition’ in quotation marks because it was very small indeed, consisting of two adjoining walls which were covered by a mural and on which were mounted seven panels (if I remember the number correctly).
The mural depicted scenes from the disaster: miners got trapped underground until their rescuers managed to break through to them (sadly, some of the men lost their lives in the disaster). The panels told the story from start to finish, from the beginnings of the mine to the fateful day that it was flooded. They included quotes from the survivors and their rescuers, as well as contemporary descriptions of life in the valley. There were also contemporary photographs of the mine and the men, followed by a modern image of today’s rescue workers. But there was lots and lots of text.
And I liked it. Admittedly, as a visitor I am not anything to go by because my passion for history and my professional interest has me read panels where others would long since have moved on in disgust. But this was different: the panel text actually made an attempt at telling a story in a captivating way.
So this is where I’m getting at: there are textbooks on the wall, and then there are novels. On my German blog I’ve already argued that writers of exhibition text have a lot to learn from commercial novelists. The Tynewydd mining disaster exhibition illustrates that point. The panels built up tension, they used emotion through quotes from the trapped miners themselves as well as observers, and they did not shy away from presenting controversy in terms of who was – or wasn’t – held responsible for the disaster. It did help that the text flow was eased through use of photographs and the occasional illustration, however, the panels followed none of the traditional rules . The mural behind the panels also helped create a sense of urgency which overall left me with a very vivid impression both of the hardships of life in the mining valleys and the community spirit among the miners which saved some of their peers’ lives in the disaster.
In summary, here is what I think made this ‘book on the wall’ work quite well:
- The emotive, oversize mural that provided the backdrop
- Tension building
- Emotional language
- Uncensored, contemporary quotes
- Strongly representing the feeling of injustice and controversy (rather than white-washing it)
- Contemporary photographs that link directly to the story told in the text
- The link to today
Was there room for improvement? Certainly. Sub-headers would have been immensely helpful, both to allow for visual scanning and to strengthen the sense of tension. A larger font size as well as better spacing would also have been preferable. More space in general would have allowed for the text to be better laid out across more panels. Select ‘high impact panels’, for example displaying a photograph only with perhaps strategically enlarged key areas, would have further increased the sense of a story unfolding.
However, as they are, the panels of the Tynewydd mining disaster exhibition go a long way in showing that panels with lots of text and a long story to tell don’t have to be boring. They can be dramatic and emotional, and incidentally I think that’s what interpretation should be anyway. But more on that another time.
 A good starting point for finding out about best practice panels is Trench, L (2009) Gallery text at the V&A. A Ten Point Guide [online]. Available from: http://www.vam.ac.uk/files/file_upload/10808_file.pdf [Accessed: 12.05.2010]. You may also want to look at Dean, D (1994) Museum Exhibition Theory and Practice. Oxon: Routledge.
 For example there were no sub-headlines structuring the text and allowing for a quick scan.