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.

The Year a President Made Love to Poland [and other translation gaffes]

U.S. President Jimmy Carter learned the hard way: some things are best left to seasoned professionals.

American President Jimmy Carter was newly sworn in when he traveled to Poland to deliver a foreign policy speech… one that would go down in history, it turns out. When President Carter talked about his “desires for the Polish people”, the words that issued forth in Polish actually came out as “my lusts for the Polish people”.


Here’s What the this World Leader Learned

Incredibly, there are even more examples like this just from that one speech (one really unfortunate translation error involves him telling the Polish people we would be happy to grasp their private parts!).

But we’re not here to laugh or criticize.

Instead, let this serve as a lesson in how to make sure you’re conveying the right message when it comes to communicating across cultures. President Carter certainly learned, and as a result, actually did more to elevate the position of presidential translator than anyone before or since.

By his second term in office, he was bringing in translators in the early stages of speech writing, rather than leaving them out until the end, when they often found themselves doing their jobs by the seat of their pants. Now, translators became an integral part of the speech writing process, ensuring cultural sensitivity and effectiveness of the words the President spoke.

From then on, translators began to play a strategic role in shaping the words presidents delivered to foreign audiences.


Museum Translators Have it Even Tougher Than Poor Mr. Seymour

That presidential interpreter’s name was Mr. Seymour, and although his career may have taken a nose dive after that fateful Poland trip, he actually did a favour for translators and interpreters… good ones, that is.

You see, there are varying levels of translation services. Almost anyone with a knack for language and/or a few years of formal study can convey a simple message from one language to another (“Where’s the train station?”). And computer software that translates words between languages is common these days, too.

But when it comes to delivering an important message with a deeper, more complex political message, cultural context is everything, as Mr. Seymour helped President Carter realize. Only translators (or interpreters, in Seymour’s case) who’ve mastered a thorough, contextual knowledge of the target language can truly deliver a message with the right socio-cultural undertones.

It’s the same for museum translation. In fact, museum translators have even more to grapple with, since they have the extra layer of meaning that’s implicit in any art piece. Think about it: explaining art is difficult enough in your own language!

The lesson? If you’re working on translation of material that has any importance, whether it’s political or cultural, it pays to have it done by a professional who’s well-versed in how cultural context is everything when it comes to translation services.


  • Top 10 Embarrassing Diplomatic Moments. Time Magazine. Retrieved 8/8/2016 from,28804,1880208_1880218_1880227,00.html