The Multilingual Museum Part 4: In Reaching Out to ‘Citizens’, Whose Language do You Choose?

Language Inclusiveness Should Extend Beyond the Museum Walls – Here’s Why


There’s a reason our oldest museums are built in the classical style. The pillars, the grand entrance steps (think the Met in NYC), the marble entrance ways. These daunting facades, which hearken back to Ancient Greece, were built to remind patrons that within those walls were held the loftiest possessions of a civilised society. Inside, visitors would encounter objects representing the apex of culture. Patrons went there to learn, to observe, to gape in awe.

But one look at the buzzwords of today’s museum and it’s easy to tell that things have changed:

Engagement. Inclusiveness. Community. Heritage. Change. Peacebuilding. Future-building.

Fast-forward more than a century after icons like the Met and the V&A were founded, and you’ll find that museums have redefined their role.

Helping Visitors Understand their World

Today, museums have expanded their role beyond the measures of collecting, preserving, cataloguing and displaying objects. The UK government has stated that museums…

“…play an essential role in helping its citizens to understand their place in the world and its heritage and that they connect our past with our present and1b797b9147c4372a22d558710cadff6xxld our future(1)”.

And because we live in a multilingual society, our museums must therefore also be multilingual. After all, if you’re going to help citizens, you might want to speak their language. One of the burning questions of today’s administrators is not whether to become multilingual but how.

When you’re a museum reaching out to citizens, whose languages do you choose to use?

How do You Prioritise Languages in Museums?

Last year, the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) collaborated with Mexico City’s Museum of the Palacio de Bellas Artes on a comprehensive exhibit of Mexican art. Called Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950, it was preceded by a full and lengthy fanfare of buzz leading up to the opening in October 2016.

It was clear there were heavy resources poured into creating an engaging exhibit along with lots of ancillary programs like school tours, the catalogue (available in both English and Spanish), and lots of public events.

But, as Julie Schwietert Collazo pointed out in the Hyperallergic blog last year, there was a glaring omission along the lines of ‘reaching out and helping citizens understand their world’.

Wall text for the entire exhibit was presented in English only. When asked about the decision to omit Spanish wall text, the assistant curator replied that a survey had been taken which indicated museum patrons didn’t expect wall text to be written in Spanish.

To understand the inherent problem with that reasoning, it helps to understand the difference between engagement and outreach.

The Answer Lies in Engagement vs. Outreach

Circling back to the government statement above, note the use of the word ‘citizens’. They didn’t use ‘visitors’ or ‘museum-goers’ when talking about a museum’s target audience. Assuming the ‘citizen’ sentiment for museums is universal and not special to the UK, you can start to see what’s wrong with that PMA survey…

Something they forgot about at PMA was that, with the switch to a more inclusive approach, museums must carefully consider not just those who visit but those who don’t.

Making outreach decisions based solely on a survey of those already visiting isn’t very inclusive.

0b03c02f1eb7a6532d676d8d7d32810fxxlThat brings us to a very important distinction for museums to make: engagement vs. outreach. Jasper Visser talks about this in his blog but within the context of digital strategy. He makes the point (and it’s a good one) that you can have a great website but what’s the use if you don’t have a way to bring traffic to your pages.

Applying his metaphor to the museums themselves, we can say that multilingual engagement through signage, tours, and other in-house mechanisms are great, but it’s not outreach. It’s a good start, but it’s not quite living up to the spirit of ‘…[playing] an essential role in helping [its] citizens to understand their place in the world’.