The Family Guide: Friend or Foe?

First and foremost, I must apologize for such a long delay in between posts. I’d like to blame it on the energy I’ve been expending at work getting ready for our up-and-coming banner exhibit for which our education department has been fanatically preparing for the last 10 months, but, I’ll be honest, the spectacular spring weather and several family visits haven’t been entirely conducive to the writing process!

Now, let’s get into the meat of things. Family guides: stimulating supplement, quixotic quest, or paper plane provisions? The honest answer is that I haven’t quite established a fully-developed opinion about whether or not these theoretically excellent addenda actually work … yet.

Let’s start with the pros, shall we? What do family guides do and why do we like them so much? Well, I’ll tell you why: they are independent islands of (totally legitimate) personal interest where the educators get to explore the themes or topics that didn’t make it in the exhibit or elsewhere in the museum. Sometimes they’re even just simplified or ‘bite-sized’ versions of the exhibit text itself for the visitor on a tight schedule or, more often, for younger visitors who may not have the reading capacity for the regular labels. Other times, they open up whole new worlds or ways to look at an exhibit or explore the museum (which is, of course, a whole other post… perhaps my next post hint hint).

I’ve been grappling with this question a lot, possibly because the family guide I just finished may have been my toughest project yet. My recent family guide was a slightly different animal, however, because it served the additional purpose of distraction. Not from the whole of the exhibit, mind, you. You see, the exhibit in question is primarily a textiles exhibit, but deals with some fairly heavy themes of orphans and child-abandonment in the 18th century. At best these themes might completely go over the heads of our many young guests and at worst might result in unexpected “family meetings” to discuss the tough subject matter in the middle of the museum. Some institutions such as memorial museums (i.e. Holocaust museums, African American heritage museums, etc.) and contemporary art museums generally expect the visitor to understand or at least have discussed what they would encounter at the museum, but, for the most part, our guest would not expect this type of exhibit in our generally family-friendly museum.

So the education team encountered a bit of a quagmire: we certainly wanted families to come through this wonderful, unique exhibit and see the rare textiles and 18th century objects on view, but we wanted to provide an alternative to the exhibit labels which would allow parents to choose not to explain the tough stuff to their four year old. We decided that the family guide was the perfect medium, with the added benefit of linking the objects in the exhibit with textiles elsewhere in the museum which would hopefully alleviate some of the crowd-flow issues we’ve encountered in the rather small exhibit space.

Armed with my solid rationale, a decent amount of research and naïve zest for the medium of the family guide, I began to write. And write. And write. Which is the first brick wall I smashed face-first into, right out of the gate. I had over 6,000 words of intended final text. Not including space for activities, drawing, and writing exercises. For a four page family guide.


As you can see, brevity is not one of my virtues.

I’ll spare you the details of the harrowing editing process, but the reason for my horrid excess of text was two-fold. Firstly, I simply wrote too much. Keep sentences short and descriptions simple. [Note to self: must learn how to write succinctly.] Secondly, my topic was a behemoth. “18th century textiles!,” I said, “How interesting and fun! Everyone likes clothes!” The size of the rock I was living under was quickly revealed. To try to describe the structure of the many types of fabric in addition to the weaving, printing, decorating, and embroidering methods accurately on 4 pages is simply laughable. But try, I did. Needless to say, I ended up simplifying and editing so much in order to cram it all in that I (rightfully) got called out and had to re-write nearly everything. Aside from the hassle this caused me (I know, having to do my job, geez!), my loquaciousness caused the more important side effect of resulting in a text-heavy family guide.

Don’t get me wrong, I love words. If you’ve ever met and/or read me, you know that. But a family guide is not the time to demonstrate one’s entire knowledge on a subject. People sometimes just don’t want to read that much – hence picking up the family guide in the first place. Part of this process is actually not writing a lot – condensing your ideas into small, informative snippets, but another important part is not making it look like a lot of text. And there’s another challenge I faced.

What I think I’m doing in InDesign

I understand that this won’t be a problem for the major museums, but for those newbies like me, here’s a tip: get a graphic designer to put your family guide together. Many times a simple one-page fold will do for a quick-and-dirty seek and find kind of family guide, but for the most part, you need someone who will balance text, graphics, and activities in a way that doesn’t make your 4 page guide look like the Oxford English Dictionary. Let’s just say learning InDesign on the job in many ways a Sisyphean task, but there’s a point at which you’ve got to just abandon the boulder at the bottom of the mountain, I suppose. I plan on taking a graphic design class in the near future to be able to properly put together a professional looking guide, but until then I’ll leave it to the pros!

At long last, I printed my long-laboured family guide out for the final edit, read it through and

What the end result looks like I’ve been doing.

realized that, yes, it was mildly interesting, but … Would I really want to read it? Would I learn from it? Would it be interesting if I was 9 years old? Honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe, but maybe I’m too close to it. This is one of the biggest challenges and doubts in my work I’ve faced, but I think that’s why I wanted to put the question up here. I hope that anyone who reads this might share their experiences with this medium, but more importantly I’d like to pose a new question: Has anyone come up with a good alternative to the family guide? There are kid/teen audio guides, there are family-oriented tours, there are interactive elements in the exhibit and whole kid-zones, but none of these serve quite the same purpose and surely this tried-and-true method could use an upgrade. Let’s brainstorm!

For those who couldn’t be bothered reading all of that silly explanation, here are Colleen’s Condensed Rules for Effective Family Guides (subject to change… a lot. I’ll let you know when I finally get it right.)

  1. Family Guides are intended to be short and sweet. Keep it brief.
  2. Choose a manageable topic: general and non-specific or narrowly focused with good details.
  3.  Include interactive elements in every section.
  4. Get a good designer. If it looks good, people will take it, and they might even read it.
  5. Don’t be afraid to use challenging language (we are learning institutions, no need to dumb it down), but don’t get into technical language unless you’re specifically defining it. If so, do so sparingly.  
  6. Make it fun. Make it something the parents will enjoy just as much as the kids. If you wouldn’t want to read it, neither will they. 

Keep an eye out for a new post soon!

signature first name


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s