The Multilingual Museum: How Museums are Tackling the Objective of Engaging Multilingual Audiences


In this new series, we will be exploring how museums are exploring this exciting new frontier. You’ll read about innovative solutions from around the world, where museums have stepped up and found unique ways to serve their multilingual visitors.

Who are These Multilingual Museum-Goers?

Multilingual museum visitors are both local and global. In cities like London or New York, where the local population has a large number of immigrants and multicultural families, museum staff are seeing a growing multilingual scene unfold before them. Many are taking action to keep their museums viable.

One shining example is the Guggenheim in New York, where they’ve placed top priority on reaching out to multilingual visitors. When museum staff opened up a Twitter discussion on how to achieve success in this area, they were met with enthusiastic participation from other top museums in the NYC region.

Issue Recognised, but Where to Start?

The problem is, however, that while museums may clearly see the need to develop multilingual resources both online and onsite, prioritisation is where things get complicated.

In other words, museum decision-makers want to engage multilingual visitors but they don’t always know where to start. Should they concentrate on preparing better-printed materials for museum visitors? Should they focus on translating their website into more languages? Should they develop community outreach programs targeting immigrants?

Part of the answer lies in the composite makeup of each individual museum’s unique visitor population.

It All Starts with Data

What’s the logical course of action when you don’t know the answer to an important question? Start asking questions yourself. That’s precisely what museums are doing: focusing on the front end of things by surveying their current audience.

The questions they’re asking? What languages do you speak at home? for starters. It’s hard to serve your visitors’ language needs if you don’t know who they are. Only by first collecting hard data on the demographics of the people who visit your museum can you build a truly helpful culture of engagement.

Begin With Dedicated Content

At the very least, museums should be producing dedicated content for their multilingual audiences. That means the following should be available in multiple languages:

  • Museum brochures
  • Exhibit podcasts
  • Flyers, announcements, and advertisements
  • Website

But going beyond translating pamphlets and brochures, museums are looking at ways to engage multilingual visitors on a deeper level.

Queens Museum: Doing it Right

One of the enthusiastic participants in the Guggenheim’s #EduTues discussions on Twitter is Queens Museum. They’re completely dialled into their multilingual community and nowhere is this more evident than in their special programming.

Called the ‘New New Yorkers’ program, it offers free multilingual courses to bilingual New Yorkers 18 and older. Local adult immigrant communities benefit from a variety of media classes like video editing, computer literacy, graphic design, painting, and more. At any given time, there are five different courses going, taught in several different languages that reflect the current needs of the community.

Looking Forward

Multilingual audiences will continue to grow. Plus, if the past is any indication at all, these audiences will also continue to evolve. Change is the new constant and to capture the attention of a constant flow of multilingual visitors, museums will have to work hard to keep pace.

A final note to ponder: many of the solutions will be found by tapping the resources that technology has to offer. Luckily, the ubiquitous-ness of mobile pairs nicely with the issues that museum staff face, making phones the most likely channel for engaging this growing body of visitors.

As you look for solutions in the months to come, don’t forget the power of mobile. Paired with the creativity of dedicated museum staff like yourself, it’s sure to yield great results in engaging your multilingual visitors.