Language Museums Around the World

If you were presented with a short article that had been written by a robot, would you be able to tell? This is just one of the many fascinating ideas you can explore while visiting a new crop of language museums around the world.There are already lots of museums which, by presenting their exhibits in minority languages, take on a secondary role of pulling language to the forefront.

But the following language museums are taking more than a passive role in promoting an interest in language. They actively explore the linguistic concepts that weigh on the minds of today’s movers and shakers. They take these heady concepts and bring them down to a palatable level for museum-goers to digest. And by doing so, they make learning about language absolutely enjoyable. Continue reading “Language Museums Around the World”

Multilingualism in Museums, Part 5

Marketing3 Marketing Terms Modern Museum Translators Need to Know (and Why)

These days, effective translating in museums is about communication, not just translation. In that and many other ways, modern museum translators find themselves borrowing from the world of marketing to engage visitors. 

This is part three in our series on multilingualism in museums. This time, we focus on the forces that drive our translation techniques and how similar they can be to those that drive marketers.

Brush Up on Your Marketing Terms

If you’re at all familiar with modern marketing techniques these days, then you might have heard the terms “user experience”, “hyperlocal”, and “buyer persona”. They’re buzzwords that get bandied about in marketing circles but which might sound a little foreign to museum translators.

That’s a shame since translators need to know about these terms if they’re going to help museums fulfil their mission-based goals. Each term, in its own way, describes an important concept in how to effectively communicate with the people you need to reach. Whether it’s a consumer of shoes online or a consumer of ideas in a museum, the key to reaching both is communication. Marketers know this. Museum translators need to know it, too. Here’s why…

Driving Force: the Mission-Based Role of Communication in Museums

We’re well past the days when museums were considered the “keepers of culture”, or mere storage and preservation halls for the artefacts of history. Nowadays, museum mission statements have been rewritten to incorporate a new agenda: the notion of having a responsibility to serve the public.


How do modern museums fulfil this type of visitor-oriented mission?

  • Outreach
  • Engagement
  • Interdisciplinary exhibits
  • Interactive exhibits
  • And more

Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Museum translators play an increasingly important role in helping museums teams reach these and other goals.

Not surprisingly then, the tools they use are remarkably similar to those used by modern digital marketers. That’s because it’s all about communication: how to best communicate with your target audience.

Here are three concepts museum translators (and the museum communication team) can borrow from the field of marketing to reach a diverse population of museum visitors.

1. Buyer Persona

Marketers study “buyer personas”, which are fictional characters representing the ideal customer. It helps them envision their target audience so they can create targeted messaging for the customers they most want to reach.

Translators need to be briefed with several buyer personas so they, too, can envision whom they’re targeting with their translations. For example, there’s the immigrant community located near the museum who might benefit from some outreach programs. The way you word your marketing collateral, your exhibition panels and other translations can greatly affect how well you’re able to engage that particular population. Bring them to life as you create your translations and you’ll do a better job of “speaking their language”.

3. Contextual Marketing

Culturally-sensitive translations can go a long way toward reaching a specific population. Marketers call this idea “contextual marketing”. Translators have a different word:

You’ve heard the term “transcreation“? It’s the notion that translators need to deliver a targeted message to a specific population (sounds a lot like marketing!). Transcreation involves creating a culturally-sensitive message that may or may not be different from the original.

4. Hyperlocal

Girl in museumDigital marketers benefit when they can build a local customer base comprised of people who live or work within walking distance of their client. That pretty much sums up what museums are attempting when they do local outreach to underserved populations. Whether it’s the immigrant population they’d like to bring in for cultural sharing events or it’s the bilingual kids in the local elementary school who’d love to visit the museum for a school trip, your local audience matters just as much as those who are visiting from around the globe.

Making your translations feel local with region-specific references and personalized messaging based on demographics, weather, or geography can help translators reach a hyperlocal audience.


Thinking like a marketer can help align you with museum goals. Rather than just preserving artefacts and educating the privileged few, as they did in the past, museums now see their role vastly expanded to include serving diverse populations and responding to their needs… even competing for their interests(1). We hope these three marketing concepts can help you help your museum clients reach those goals.



When Museum Walls Aren’t Sending the Right (Colour) Message


Museums spend an inordinate amount of resources on choosing colours for their walls. Beyond even the most discerning of home interior decorators, the gallery teams in charge of exhibit wall paint apply an almost scientific approach to their task, sometimes taking weeks to pinpoint the right hue.

They do this, of course, to ensure maximum enjoyment for their visitors. Continue reading “When Museum Walls Aren’t Sending the Right (Colour) Message”

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.

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

The Multilingual Museum Part 2: Bringing Mobile Technology to the Table

amsterdam dna
Amsterdam DNA exhibition – multilingual QR codes

Museum Multilingualism: Bringing Mobile Technology to the Table

Last time we talked about the need for museums to cater to their multilingual visitors. Whether they’re from the surrounding community or they arrive from around the globe while on holiday, these multilingual visitors represent a vital portion of the modern museum-going population.

Continue reading “The Multilingual Museum Part 2: Bringing Mobile Technology to the Table”

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.

The Serious Limitations of Google Translate in Real Life

Google Translate may make for a passable travel dictionary for simple phrases, but how well can it handle the complexities of real life?

google translate-01

Everyone loves Google Translate. It now covers over 100 languages and, according to Google, there are over 500 million users. For traveling, it’s a hugely popular app, offering real timetranslation via voice, as well as the ability to snap a photo of a street sign and get an on-the-spot translation quick enough to navigate your way around strange cities like a pro.

But what, exactly, are those 500 million users actually doing with Google Translate? Chances are, not much more than extracting only the simplest of phrases… enough to get around a foreign city but not much else.

Although that’s hardly the end goal for the engineers who work tirelessly on the algorithm that drives the app, it’s pretty much all Google Translate good for at the moment, and here’s why.

Nuances? Complexities? Context? Not There Yet

Take, let’s say, a simple idiom that’s used often in business: “The ball is in your court”. If someone tells you this, it means you have a decision to make, an action to take, a responsibility to fulfill. It’s your move.

Feed it through the Google Translate mill a few times and it becomes:

The ball is in the court. 

Somewhere in its formula, Google removed the meaning of “your” and the whole phrase lost its meaning. Now, this is one of the simplest of idioms, so much so that even a foreigner who’s never heard it before can sort of detect the meaning.

Google Translate, however, seems to revert to mere dictionary-level translation (word-for-word), resulting in the vague phrase: “the ball is in the court”.

If it Can’t Handle Simplest Idiom…

If it butchers even that simple idiom, just imagine what would happen to something like ” In 15th century Florence, lowered eyes signified modesty and obedience in women.”  (from a V&A Museum description of Botticelli’s “Smeralda Bandinelli” painting).

So, as far as how well the app handles the complexities of real life with all its socio-cultural contextualisation, we’re just not there yet. For now, we’ll have to leave the tough stuff to human translators.

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

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.


Brits View Museums as Keepers of the Truth… for Everyone

Museums, if nothing else, are institutions of engagement, learning, and truth. But to fulfil those aims and engage everyone, they must be able to attract the attention of a multilingual crowd.

What is the purpose of a museum? If you’re like most Brits, you believe that museums play an active role in the sharing of knowledge throughout society. You may also feel that museums are guardians of the truth since they can be trusted to present all sides of a story.

18679129_10154358971896831_393543859_n_400x300Museums Hold Heavy Responsibilities

Those perceptions are from a 2013 study by Britain Thinks. After surveying members of the public about their perception of the roles of museums in society, the researchers from Britain Thinks also discovered Brits hold a more favourable impression of museums than just a generation ago.

One reason we’ve come to hold our museums in such high regard is because over the past generation, museums have stepped up to the plate in terms of actively seeking engagement of all visitors, both domestic and foreign.

No longer viewed as stuffy warehouses filled with dusty objects, they’re now considered to be active players in modern society. They reach out to all visitors, they educate, they facilitate development of individuals, and they promote happiness.

We love our museums, too. The study revealed that museums are more trusted than government or the media. As such, they are viewed as keepers of the truth, preservers of heritage, and shapers of the future.

Museums have some pretty lofty standards to uphold!

We Live in a Multilingual Society

To uphold those standards, and to truly share knowledge with everyone, it’s essential that museums present their material in more than just one language. As stated in the Britain Thinks study:

“Museums are about education for everyone in society equally”

Museums simply can’t fulfil our expectations without the presence of multilingual material throughout their museums (and in their marketing collateral). Increasingly, as museums seek to attract more foreign visitors, and as society in general becomes more pluralistic, museum directors must consider the needs of speakers of other languages.

“To succeed in the 21st century, a museum needs to be responsive to its audience and align its programs to the audience’s needs, rather than sit in a conference room and hypothesize about what the visitor needs,”

~Lisa Abia-Smith, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art

Of course, most museums do seek to attract more visitors, and increasingly so from foreign countries. Marketing efforts that cater to foreigners have, for the most part, found a very warm reception among foreigners who, by the way, simply love to visit British museums, it turns out.

How One Museum Thrives by Understanding the Needs of Visitors

The National Museum of Wales has tapped into all these sentiments, and discovered that museums can be huge drivers of tourism. By presenting marketing materials and museum collateral in multiple languages, they not only uphold the standards today’s Brits expect from their museums, they also managed a significant uptick in overseas visits.

As reported in The Guardian this past March, Amgueddfa Cymru, National Museum Wales has experienced a 26 percent increase in visits from overseas tourists in just three years.

How did they do it?

Part of their strategy was to actively engage a wider circle of visitors through their marketing campaign. One of the elements of their marketing campaign was tapping into foreign tourists’ desires to understand British history and culture.

That’s where translation came in.

How Translation Made Foreign Tourists Happy

As noted in the Guardian article, the head of marketing for National Museum Wales’ 7 museums catered to foreign tourists by relying on art and museum translation services to bring their exhibits alive for speakers of language other than English.

First, they translated their website pages into French, Chinese, Spanish, and German. That included the pages with material about the permanent collections of the museums.

Secondly, after discovering that tourists are huge consumers of printed materials, they distributed brochures at more points of engagement, where tourists are likely to find them: motorway services and tourist information centres, for example.

Third, catering to the Chinese tourist market, they created a series of videos with Chinese captions. The videos featured highlights of the National Museum Cardiff, and are also available on their Chinese web pages.

These 3 translation-related efforts, combined with a few other marketing initiatives (outdoor advertising, for example), were what led to their 26% increase in foreign visitors.


National Museum Wales seems to have found success in the crossroads of fulfilling domestic expectations of our modern museums and attracting more foreign visitors who crave knowledge about our history and culture.

For museum translators, it’s an exciting direction, and we can be proud to be part of fulfilling the mission of today’s museums, and helping them to thrive and serve the public.