An Intern’s Journey; Chapter 13: Dear Dr. Banting- We’re Almost There!

Last week I took you behind the scenes and discussed a little bit about what it’s been like to try and re-open a museum during the pandemic! While we haven’t re-opened yet, we are constantly working towards re-opening! This week I thought I would give you some updates on the virtual exhibit I have been working on!

The last month or so I have been doing a lot of formatting, transcribing (with the help of volunteers of course!), and writing to flesh out the exhibit more. I finished a good chunk of the exhibit design and layout back in June, but in July it was really time to sit down and get to the meat of the project.

After going through and reading all the Dear Dr. Banting letters we had in our collection and sorting them based on theme, I selected around 20 letters from each of the categories. This was definitely one of the harder parts of the project! There were so many good letters, so it was difficult to justify selecting one letter over the other. The hope is that over time all the letters will be scanned, transcribed and uploaded to a database for people to look through. For now, the 20 letters selected for each category will hopefully highlight various perspectives, voices and experiences from our community!

Once those letters were selected and scanned, the next step was transcribing! Given that I have other projects to work on aside from this exhibit, transcribing close to 200 letters would take up a lot of time, I didn’t necessarily have! I am so thankful to the several volunteers who stepped up and assisted with transcribing the letters! It made the process a lot easier and also gave me experience coordinating and managing volunteers which was a bonus! Any part of the letter they couldn’t figure out I was able to- which goes to show that two pairs of eyes are definitely better than one. As for the historic letters that will be featured, I transcribed the typed ones, since they were definitely the easiest to transcribe and took very little time. The ones written in cursive were the ones that gave me the most trouble- as I stopped learning cursive in early elementary school. It definitely has hindered me not only as a historian, but also in my daily life (My “signature” is just my hand-written name!). This is a skill I will have to teach myself to do- thank goodness for all the online cursive resources for elementary kids, it might seem a bit silly, but they actually help! But until then, I use other tips and tricks to help me understand somebody’s handwriting and I will list them here for you!

  • Look for the words you can make out clearly, always better to start with those as sometimes they’ll give you the context and clues you need to figure out the other words
  • Pay attention to their style, how do their Os look? What about their Us or Vs? Sometimes certain letters will look like each other in a person’s style, so if you’re able to clearly identify a word, use those letters as a base and compare other letters to figure out the words
  • Just guess! Don’t stay stuck on one word for too long, guess what it might say and put it in brackets and come back to it later. The next time you look at it, you may figure it out!

An example of one of the historic letters that will be featured!

Once I got all the transcriptions, it was time to figure out how to display everything! Should the transcriptions be to the immediate right/left of the picture? Above it? Below it? What about double-sided letters? This was another challenge in putting the exhibit together. Of course, I want the exhibit to look visually appealing, but also it needs be logical! With this in mind, I created a column on each page with will have a letter either left/right justified and the transcription immediately beside it. Then they will alternate between left and right justified all the way til the end. For letters that are double sided, I decided to put those in a “slide show” display, so visitors can click between each side at their leisure. Not only is it visually appealing, but also logical!

One of the last big components of the exhibit is writing! Many people might not know this, but writing exhibit text is its own art form, I swear! You have to keep in mind that you’ll likely had a wide range of people reading the exhibit, at vary reading levels, and varying proficiency levels. You’ll have both the general public and academics reading the text, so you can’t put too much jargon in it, but you of course don’t want to make it overly simplistic. Then there’s the length, some people (like my dad and brother) are happy to spend hours in a museum reading every single label, and I mean every single piece of text (they are a museum’s dream), but not everyone is like that. A good portion of visitors won’t even read the text. So how do you balance this? There is actually a standard for how to write museum text that I learned in my museology course at Western. There is a typical word count for introductions, object labels, category labels etc. Taking that information and also taking note of my experiences visiting museums and reading exhibit text, I set myself word counts for each piece of writing I need to do. This includes:

  • Introductory and conclusion pages
  • Introductory/Theme text for each exhibit page
  • My own “Dear Dr. Banting” letter
  • General writing for the contact, about and home page
  • Brief introductions for the exhibit landing page

It doesn’t seem like a lot, but given I have around 7 themes- it starts to add up! Not only that, but the first draft of writing is NOT what goes into the exhibit. My exhibit text will go through several editing rounds done by myself and Grant. So the writing stage includes, editing and rewriting, and more rewriting, and more rewriting and so on and so forth. Its a long process, but definitely worth it in the end!

Takeaways for the week:

  • As intimidating and time consuming as digital history, it is the way of our future and allows us to connect and engage with the public more
  • Museums should continue to create digital/virtual museums even in our post-pandemic new normal. This allows people from around the world and those who can’t leave their home/may have accessibility needs that can’t be met to have a chance to engage with museums and heritage sites.
  • The more transcriptions that you do, the easier it becomes. I still struggle quite a bit with cursive (thanks to the education system who got rid of mandatory cursive lessons when I was in grade three), but I am learning more everyday.

The exhibit launches on November 14th, 2020 as part of the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin and World Diabetes Day celebrations!

You can write your own digital letter to be featured in the exhibit, check it out here!

This post was written by Kat MacDonald, an intern at Banting House NHSC. Kat is currently completing her M.A. in Public History at Western University.

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