Keeping it Simple: Why Jargon is Holding Your Museum Back

Ashleigh Hibbins

Ashleigh Hibbins
Museum Professional

Future-proof.

Interpretation.

Audiences.

Engagement.

Change management.

Collections.

Interactivity.

Segmentation.

Co-curation.

Do you ever use these jargon terms at your museum? They all serve a practical purpose in some contexts, but it’s important to remember that their definitions aren’t obvious to everyone.

We try to avoid using industry jargon on our tours to appeal to as many guests as possible.

Your museum might be guilty of using industry jargon, and it could be having a bigger impact than you realize. Jargon can be a silent killer – we often don’t realize we’re using it, and people who aren’t in the know are unlikely to say anything.

Oxford Dictionaries defines ‘jargon’ as:

Special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand.

For example, many people think of interpretation as translating one language into another, which isn’t the intended meaning in most museums.

The point of language is to reveal meaning, never to obscure or confuse. Museums are storytellers, educators, entertainers, and communicators, so there should be no place for excessive jargon in our vocabulary.

Here are 5 areas where using plain language could make your museum more awesome.

Tours

We love getting super nerdy about sharing fantastic fossil facts or amazing art anecdotes on our tours. But could jargon or obscure language be holding your tour back from reaching greatness?

Most people join a museum tour to be entertained and learn something new, so make it easy for them. If tour participants can’t understand the terminology on your tour, it could not only prevent them from learning something new, but actually make them feel unwelcome.

Signage

From exhibit panels to fire exits, your museum has a lot of signs – and people of all backgrounds, ages, and abilities need to understand them. It’s one of the most important aspects of your museum to keep free of jargon, but even here it can sometimes slip in.

When writing your next info panel or sandwich board, ask yourself: could someone without an art degree understand this? Can it be read by someone with a disability? What about someone who doesn’t speak the same language?

If not, it might time to go back to the drawing board, or create alternative ways for people to access the same information. The Tate has dedicated an entire section of their website to jargon-busting over 400 terms used in their galleries.

Recruitment

What’s an “Adult Engagement Manager?” Someone who manages couples getting engaged at the art gallery?

Job descriptions are notorious for jargon and industry buzzwords, but they could be preventing your museum from finding that next great employee.

Some sector-specific terminology is necessary in job postings, but too much unclear vocabulary risks putting off good candidates from applying and creates confusion about the purpose of the role. If the jargon is too obscure, it could even prevent your posting from showing up on search engines. This is especially true if you’re trying to attract candidates from outside of the museum sector.

There’s no reason to dress up opportunities with fancy words: your museum is already an awesome place to work! Using plain language ensures you’re making your needs and expectations clear, and attracting the best candidates for the job.

Team Spirit

It’s pretty hard to maintain great teamwork without effective communication. Many organizations make a conscious effort to ensure their external communication is accessible and jargon-free, but don’t do the same for internal communication. It’s a team spirit killer.

Don’t assume that everyone at the same museum will understand the same jargon. Using too many acronyms or obscure terminology can make new staff feel like outsiders at the exact moment when they should be welcomed into the team.

I once spent my first 3 months at a job trying to figure out why everyone kept saying “Ehyobees” in meetings.

I eventually figured out they were saying “A.O.B.s” as a short form for “Any Other Business”.

Even if you’re not a newbie, jargon can create confusion. Different jobs and departments have languages of their own, even within a single institution. Museums Galleries Scotland has made a jargon glossary to address this very issue in the sector. Using clear and straightforward language ensures everyone is on the same page, which is the foundation of great teamwork and morale.

Fundraising

Donors won’t support causes they don’t understand. Remember that funders are often from outside the museum sector, so it’s important to avoid industry jargon in grant applications.

By explaining how amazing your project is in plain English, you can make sure potential funders will get what you’re trying to do and want to support it.

Top Tips for Busting Museum Jargon

  • If there’s a simpler word with the same meaning, use it.
  • Avoid acronyms and slang, unless it’s essential to the story.
  • A house style writing guide can make sure everyone’s writing is consistent and accurate.
  • Get a non-expert to read things over.
  • Fewer words is often better.
  • If you can’t avoid using an obscure word, make sure you define it first.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. This will encourage others to do the same.
  • Show your colleagues this article!

Clear, simple language isn’t being lazy or dumbing down – it usually requires more effort and knowledge to boil a concept down to its most essential elements. By cutting down on jargon, you can boost your museum’s accessibility, popularity, credibility, and team spirit.

That’s why we think using clear and simple language is a no-brainer for museums everywhere.

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