The Importance of Multilingual Museum Resources in a Contemporary Setting

From the smallest venues to the world stage, modern sentiments towards The Other are shifting at an alarming rate. Rampant xenophobia and nationalism, long thought to be just barely concealed beneath the surface, have boiled over spectacularly in places such as the United States with the election of Donald Trump emboldening racial bigotry. Other places in the world have followed suit, such as the UK with Brexit bringing out the worst in people, perhaps culminating with Boris Johnson emerging as newly-minted Prime Minister.

Indeed, it’s become readily apparent that there are highly vocal movements that seek to reject multiculturalism — and one of the most common ways this is done is by placing a focus on erecting language barriers by discouraging or outright excluding languages other than English. This is nothing new; complaints of “why should I have to ‘press 1 for English'” have been rampant for decades now. However, what is both new and unique is the progressive response to this xenophobia — and how museums, of all places, are quietly but defiantly leading the way.

Cienpies Design

Simple and Effective

The push towards multicultural inclusivity begins with measures to support universal accessibility. There are simple and effective ways to accomplish this, and the museum community is accomplishing this by providing multilingual resources to visitors. Doing so ensures that larger percentages of patrons can receive the full benefit of a museum visit, and often without creating undue financial or administrative burdens on the museums themselves.

An excellent example of this is how museums in Minnesota have adopted a new policy to use multilingual wall labels for exhibits. Recent exhibits on Cuban art at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center feature bilingual text, with special care taken to use Cuban idioms where appropriate. An even more ambitious exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art featuring Native American artists saw the use of dozens of languages specific to the tribes represented in the exhibit.

Photo credit: Iakov Filimonov
Photo credit: Iakov Filimonov

Sending a Powerful Message

It’s true that, statistically, the number of non-English speaking attendees to these exhibits was low, based on the general population demographics of Minnesota. Yet providing multilingual wall labels does more than simply provide access for native speakers — it also sends a strong message that languages other than English are not to be denigrated, ignored, or erased, and that the validity and value of non-English-speaking cultures need to be celebrated and offered high measures of protection instead of being used as an excuse to ‘Otherize’ those who don’t speak English or another Western language.

Sending these messages is part of the modern mandate of museums around the world. Cultural diplomacy such as Minnesota museums is engaging in has been echoed globally, with one remarkable example coming from one of our translation clients, Rome’s Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo (MAXXI), which “exports” its exhibitions by hosting or co-producing its exhibits with other museums around the world. MAXXI exhibitions have been exported to Valencia, Buenos Aires, and Lisbon in recent years, showcasing efforts in building international communities that transcend single languages that fight back against otherwise contemporary isolationist impulses.

Cherry sculpture in Minneapolis garden, Minnesota, USA
Cherry sculpture in Minneapolis garden, Minnesota, USA

Paving the Way Forward

Both globally and locally, the need to lift up and engage with other cultures beyond our own is growing alongside the misguided notions of nationalistic individuals and groups that seek to exclude those who don’t fit their arbitrary criteria. Leveraging multilingual approaches in museum settings is just one more way to prevent the spread of xenophobia and bigotry.