...who writes what you read in exhibits?

Ever Wonder? / July 8, 2020

...who writes what you read in exhibits?

Photo of Senior exhibit developer Jennifer Lawrence sits in the cockpit of SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.
Image attribution
Courtesy of Jennifer Lawrence

Senior exhibit developer Jennifer Lawrence sits in the cockpit of SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.

For the first few episodes of this podcast, we'll take you behind the scenes of the California Science Center to meet some of the people who design and develop exhibits.

Imagine for a minute that you're visiting a science center or a museum. You're looking at an exhibit and… you probably have questions. Good thing there's some text posted nearby to help explain what's going on.

These bits of interpretive text are called exhibit labels, and you can find them all over museums. If you've been to a museum, you've read a label. Do you ever wonder who writes them?

In this episode, we talk to Jennifer Lawrence, the senior exhibit developer at the California Science Center. Part of her job is to write pretty much everything you read while looking at and playing with our exhibits.

Have a question you've been wondering about? Send an email to tell us what you'd like to hear in future episodes.

Subscribe to our show on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or Google Podcasts. To see a full list of episodes, visit our show’s webpage.


Perry Roth-Johnson (00:05):

Hello, this is Ever Wonder? From the California Science Center, I'm Perry Roth-Johnson. For the first few episodes of this podcast I'm going to take you behind the scenes of the California Science Center to meet some of the people who design and develop exhibits. Imagine for a minute that you're visiting a science center or a museum, you're looking at an exhibit and you probably have questions. Good thing. There's some text posted nearby to help explain what's going on. These bits of interpretive text are what we in the biz call exhibit labels and you can find them all over museums. If you've been to a museum, you've read a label, but do you ever wonder who writes them? Today I'm going to introduce you to someone at the California Science Center, whose job it is to write pretty much everything you read while looking at and playing with our exhibits.

Jennifer Lawrence (01:09):

Hi, my name is Jennifer Lawrence, and I am the senior exhibit developer at the California Science Center.

Perry Roth-Johnson (01:15):

Hey Jen. So you're a senior exhibit developer, and I know you write exhibit labels, but first of all, for our listeners, what do we mean when we say exhibit label?

Jennifer Lawrence (01:25):

That's a good question. Basically, anything that is around an exhibit that has text on it could be considered an exhibit label. So you've got instructions, you've got, um, you know, stuff that tells you what the exhibit is about. Like all those things. And even sometimes, I guess, theoretically, you could have labels without text. That's like an illustration that describes how an exhibit works, but all of those could be considered exhibit labels.

Perry Roth-Johnson (01:52):

And so you, you write a lot of these labels, like when people go to the Science Center and they're reading stuff, like those are words that you wrote, right?

Jennifer Lawrence (02:01):

Yes, that is true. And it's so funny because when, before I had this job, you know, I would go to museums and read labels and it never really occurred to me that someone would write them. And then now that's my job. But of course somebody has to do everything. When you go to a museum, there's someone that's done everything that's around. You, you know, everything is very well thought through and, and everyone, there's a job attached to all those things.

Perry Roth-Johnson (02:25):

So like the whole museum is a design environment and when you're writing a label, um, like what are you thinking about? Are you trying to put yourself into our guest’s shoes and think about the exhibit from their perspective? Like, what's, what's going through your mind when you're writing these labels?

Jennifer Lawrence (02:41):

Yeah, definitely. Um, uh, for a while before. Oh, okay. So I worked at the Science Center and then for a little while I was a stay at home mom, and then I came back to the Science Center. And when I was a stay at home mom, I was at the Science Center all the time with my kids. And so when I write labels, I think about, you know, people going through exhibits and all the demands that are pulling on them, things that they, maybe they need a snack, maybe they're hungry. Maybe their kid needs to go to the bathroom, maybe this, that. And so I'm mindful of these things. And so the exhibit labels that I write, I want them to pop and to be short and accessible so that people can get them through all the other things that are happening in their lives. And hopefully they'll be fun and memorable too. Um, I like, I would like to say that some of the labels are, so….

Perry Roth-Johnson (03:33):

When are you having the most fun, when you're writing a label?

Jennifer Lawrence (03:37):

Well, I love it when I can bring in a little poetry, a little rhyme, a little pop culture even. Those are some of my favorite labels. Um, and when I am thinking of them, you know, again, I just want to them to be accessible and fun. So if I can throw in a little, you know, sneaky Star Wars reference that maybe you would get if you've seen Star Wars, but if you haven't, the label will still make sense. It's like, totally great. I love to do that. Or, you know, give people a sing-song label that might remind them of reading a book to their kid when they're at home. Like, I love to do those kinds of things and they make it a lot of fun.

Perry Roth-Johnson (04:18):

I want to talk about some of your past projects. I was talking to one of your colleagues earlier today, and it reminded me that you guys wrote all the labels that surround space shuttle Endeavour in a period of very short period. Like that is a big exhibit. It's a 16,000 square foot building that we have the space shuttle in, and you have all these, uh, backlit labels that break the space shuttle down into each of its, uh, kind of sub-assemblies. Each of its parts, how each of those parts work and help the shuttle get to space and back safely. Uh, tell me what that was like. ‘Cause it sounded like it was at a breakneck pace. Uh, how long did you have to work on and how did you feel when you were, when you were doing it?

Jennifer Lawrence (05:02):

Oh man, that was such, looking back, such a great project to be on. That is the project they called me to come back to work on, like, I was a stay at home mom. Then they called me and said, "Hey, we got space shuttle Endeavour. You want to come back and help us with it?" And I was like, seriously? Okay. And so I came back to work, and I came back working part time. So I came back, working part time into this exhibit that had to be done in a year, which for an exhibit as a pretty fast turnaround, I came back in September and then Endeavour was here by October of the following year. That exhibit is very different from most of the exhibits we have with the Science Center. The first half of the Endeavour exhibit was conceived as just a line. We knew people were going to be in line waiting to see Endeavour. And at first we were like, well, we'll just cue people up in there. And people are like, Hey, you know what, maybe we should have an exhibit in there. We were like, okay. So, um, the text panels in there have more text on them than is typical for the Science Center because we were like, people could be waiting in line because the surrounding can read these. And it seems like a lot of the people that come to Endeavour have kind of like this thirst for knowledge about it, you know, people were more willing to read. So it seemed to have worked out in the long run, but it does look different than our other exhibits and that's why.

Perry Roth-Johnson (06:25):

I want to talk about one of your other past projects. This one's a little more recent. We have a beautiful garden out by the parking lot at the science center. And you recently re-did all of the panels that are describing like what this plant is and how it fits into the California ecosystem.

Jennifer Lawrence (06:44):

Oh my goodness. I love that project. I love it for so many reasons. One of the reasons is because when that project was originally done many, many, many, many years ago, that was my first project to ever write exhibit text on. So I started with that project and then they get to come back and revisit it so many years later, it was really just a gift. And I was so thankful. And one of the things I'm super excited about this garden project, we finished it in, in January of 2020. So this year, and then now the pandemic has come and the Science Center is closed. So the only exhibit that people can see at the Science Center is that garden exhibit, which we just finished. So I'm so excited and you know I had to go to the Science Center the other day to pick up something from my desk, you know? And it's so deserted kinda, you know? Um, but there were a few people, you know, just out for a walk in the garden and I could see them enjoying the panels and it made me so happy. I was like, Oh, the Science Center can still you know reach people, even though we're closed. And...

Perry Roth-Johnson (07:47):

Yeah, I'm glad you brought that up. Cause I was kinda mentioned that that's probably the only thing that you can see if you're, you know, taking a walk around Expo Park right now. And do you have a favorite label? You know, maybe it's one that you've written or it's one that you've seen another museum written by someone else?

Jennifer Lawrence (08:02):

Well, my favorite labels of one, the ones that I've written, uh feature, you know, poetry or something playful or rhyme. One of my favorite labels at the Science Center that I've written, I have to say, is the introduction to the Ecosystems Discovery Room because it's a little poem. It's about how your home is your habitat, and I actually wrote that when I was not working at the Science Center. I wrote that when I was a stay-at-home mom! They were like, "We need a poem here, and you don't work here anymore but can you please write us a poem? And I was like, Yay! And I was immersed at that time in children's books and like all this kind of stuff. So it felt like it was very natural. And, um, I had written some poems before I was a mom. They were much better after I was a mom, frankly, I think. So that was my favorite, uh, label that I've written probably if I had to pick one. And then my favorite label that I have seen, I, you know, weirdly, believe it or not, there are label-writing competitions. I've never entered one cause I am not competitive. I don't like that. But I like to read them to see what other people out there are doing it. One just totally made me laugh. It was at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, which is sitting on a pier and they had these outside labels and one of them just said, “It all,” and had an arrow. And the other one said, “Away from it all.” And it had an arrow that pointed the other way. I just thought that was so great because what kind of content is that? That's not really necessary, but it made me laugh. Right?

Perry Roth-Johnson (09:38):

Like, could you tell what the arrows were pointing to at all?

Jennifer Lawrence (09:41):

No, no.

Perry Roth-Johnson (09:41):

They were just totally stand alone.

Jennifer Lawrence (09:42):

Well, ‘cause it was in a picture, you know? I mean, if I had been there, you know, you could see that probably one arrow pointed toward the actual Exploratorium and the other one probably pointed to the ocean or something. I don't know. But, um, ‘cause it was literally on the pier, but I feel like it was something like that, you know, just kind of directional signage, but very playful and fun.

Perry Roth-Johnson (10:02):

Very whimsical.

Jennifer Lawrence (10:03):

Right. Yes.

Perry Roth-Johnson (10:04):

Is that an element you, you like, uh, to see in a label—for them to be whimsical and playful?

Jennifer Lawrence (10:10):

So much! That's like my favorite thing.

Perry Roth-Johnson (10:14):

When you talk to people and they ask you, "What do you do for a living?" Um, Is there anything that, that you do that, that people don't think like an exhibit developer or someone who works at a museum would do cause we wear many hats around the Science Center. Uh, like what are some things that people don't expect that, that you're doing, uh, while you're working?

Jennifer Lawrence (10:37):

Well, that's, that's a good question. I mean, you know that most of the stuff that people don't expect when they hear I'm an exhibit developer, they think my job is awesome all day long nonstop. That's all I do. Fun stuff. Fun, fun, fun. I mean, people, you know, are surprised to find out that there's like meetings and you know, office politics, things that you would find at a regular job. But I tell you, the thing that I am the most surprised about that I get to do as an exhibit developer. I mean, she, you got to do this too Perry. We got to go and ride on SOFIA, which was, you know, this really cool plane that has like an observatory in the side and the side opens up and they get to observe space and we had to get like passports because it flew to Canada. I mean, you know.

Perry Roth-Johnson (11:26):

That SOFIA plane ride was really cool because it's a big 747 that has a hole cut out the side of it so that a door can open up and a telescope can look out at the stars and see what they look like in infrared light.

Jennifer Lawrence (11:38):

But you know, when we were on that flight, it was also in the middle of the night, which is great, which makes sense because it's dark, you know, you have to go at night. Um, but we got to see the Northern Lights.

Perry Roth-Johnson (11:48):

That's right. That's right.

Jennifer Lawrence (11:49):

On that part, which I had never seen.

Perry Roth-Johnson (11:51):

I probably took 300 pictures trying to get the Northern Lights to come out in my camera.

Jennifer Lawrence (11:56):

Yeah. I had one maybe that was sort of passable. It's like crazy thing. I mean, I got to be at LAX when Endeavour landed and my job was to, you know, help an astronaut that day to make sure he knew where he was going, and all that kind of stuff. Um, and I was standing next to him when Endeavour flew by and I was so excited, I jumped up and down and landed on his foot and was very embarrassed. And I was like, I'm so sorry. And he was like, Hey, I'm super excited too! I mean, you know, there are crazy things that we have done, Perry, as exhibit developers, you know, and it's pretty cool.

Perry Roth-Johnson (12:39):

Well I think that, that was a good, you know, gamut of a lot of things you worked on. So, uh, thanks Jen for coming on the show really appreciate it.

Jennifer Lawrence (12:46):

Oh, so much fun. Perry, love talking to you.

Perry Roth-Johnson (12:50):

That's our show. Thanks for listening until next time. Keep wondering.

Perry Roth-Johnson (12:58):

Ever Wonder? From the California Science Center is produced by me, Perry Roth-Johnson, along with Jennifer Castillo, Liz Roth-Johnson is our editor. Theme music provided by Michael Nicholas and Pond 5. We'll drop new episodes every other Wednesday. If you're a fan of the show, be sure to subscribe and leave us a rating or review or tell a friend about us. Now our doors may be closed, but our mission to inspire science learning and everyone continues. We're working hard to provide free educational resources online while maintaining essential operations like onsite animal care and preparing for our reopening to the public. Join our mission by making a gift at californiasciencecenter.org/support