Spiky Studs, General Elections and the Complicated Business of Museum Translation

Spiky Studs

When museums offer ambitious exhibitions steeped in political context, the job of translation gets even more complex than usual.

In the Summer of 2015, the Victoria & Albert Museum ran a provocative exhibition that sought to get people thinking about the role of museums as public spaces. It was lofty and thought-provoking in the ways that only the best museum curators can pull off (read more about that here).

Spikey-StudsCalled “All of This Belongs to You”, the exhibition featured art that reminded visitors of the museum’s place in public life. The notion that museums are for the people – all the people – is a civic-minded ideology that some say the V&A (and others) might have gotten away from in recent decades.

To stir up debate, one piece in the exhibition featured spiky studs – the kind you see in many public spaces these days. They are designed to keep people from sleeping near buildings. Do spiky studs support the philosophy of the V&A’s original founders, which viewed museums as a “schoolroom for everyone”?

The entire exhibition was timed to occur just as the general election would take place. The idea was to stimulate conversations about citizenship, too.

What’s a Museum-Goer’s Prior Knowledge of Exhibitions Like This One?

The curators of this exhibition certainly had big ideas in mind when they put it together.

So imagine a museum translator’s job when it comes to making sure it all gets conveyed properly. Here, more than ever, it’s easy to see how the depth of political and cultural knowledge of visitors matters greatly. It’s also crucial for translators to see such exhibitions from a foreigner’s viewpoint, and to imagine whether the issues are coming across in the right way (or at all!).

Colin Mulberg, who worked for 11 years at the V&A developing new galleries, would agree. He found that prior knowledge of your museum visitors is key, especially when developing active displays.

“Text that focuses on the interests, prior knowledge and learning preferences of target audiences works best.”

-Colin Mulberg, Freelance Museum Consultant

When exhibitions like the one described above come along, it’s a chance for museum translators to show what they’re made of. “All This Belongs to You”, for sure, but it’s the museum translator’s job to know who “You” is.


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