Last Friday, I went to the ACE Study Day ‘Aspects of Publishing: Guide and Souvenir Books’ at the Geffrye Museum. We’re in the process of redeveloping our guidebook at work, and it was interesting to see how other organisations and museums had come to their decisions about the kinds of books they produce, and who they are for.
It was great to hear people speak openly about what had and hadn’t worked in their institutions, and how they dealt with external factors, such as placement within their shops and ticketing areas, and the ways that staff help sell them as part of a visit. It was also interesting to hear people speak honestly about the tensions between commercial and curatorial needs within the institution, and the strategies for overcoming them. The title of this post comes from a response to a question about the needs of museum shops to ensure they make money while maintaining the voice of the institution.
The range of publications was wide, and raised a lot of questions about where we might go with our guidebook, what its function might be, and who it is for:
- Does it need to act as a guide? Is its main function to help guide people around the exhibition and interpret the pieces on display? Does it need to contain a map? Is the intention that the book is used while at the centre?
Our current guidebook has a spread for each of our galleries, with key objects to see, as well as a map, and information about our other business activities, such as Education, Venue Hire and Weddings. We were shown examples of books which offered ‘A quick look’, and ‘containing 10 trails’, which were specifically intended to guide the visitor on the day.
- Does it need to focus on the collection and exhibits? Should the book be specifically tied to aspects of the collection and the exhibits we have in the space, or should it be used to open up wider themes?
In the case of the Space Centre, could we use impressive images from Hubble or NASA’s archive to frame themes we address in the exhibition, rather than focusing on objects we hold or display? This potentially gives the guidebook a longer life, as the exhibition changes over time.
The National Trust recently published Prejudice and Pride, which celebrates and focuses on LGBTQ Heritage across the National Trust sites.
By focusing on a theme in the context of British heritage, the book is not a guide to a visit, but rather a resource that reflects on hidden or previously untold histories as part of a wider discourse on heritage, representation and visibility.
- Who is it for? Should the guidebook be aimed at the reader who wants more in-depth information to supplement their experience at the centre? Should it be a visually led document that triggers memories and discussion about the visit? Is it aimed at all visitors, or targeted at a specific reader? Is it for kids?
Our current guidebook is a mix of all of the above, which over time (and with incremental changes) has become a tangle of information, voices and intention. One of the triggers for this new redevelopment has been the recognition that we need to focus the guidebook and ask who and what is it for.
- Do we need more than one? Does it make sense to divide the guidebooks into separate smaller pieces which can appeal to different readers, uses and price-points?
We were shown great examples of institutions’ range of books, from text-heavy interpretations of the museum, to pocket-sized books selling at £5, to kids’ activity books, which were created in response to audiences needs.
A great example is the National Portrait Gallery’s 100 Portraits book, which is small (150mm x 150mm), image-focused paperback, and retails for £6.95. It sits within a range of other publications from the National Portrait Gallery and is the kind of thing that would make a great gift or souvenir.
As we approach our new guidebook, these questions will help us form our ideas and work out the best way forward. I’m hoping that eventually we will develop a range of books which enable us to tell our stories in different ways and appeal to different audiences with a credible and confident voice.