Museums inhabit a unique cultural space, one that provides them both the opportunity and the responsibility to educate, celebrate, and commemorate humanity. From arts and the humanities to history, science, and beyond, museum spaces are integral to preserving and presenting knowledge to others. This rightly makes audience engagement a priority for museums everywhere; the measure of a museum’s success can be measured by the number of people that regularly flow through its virtual or physical doors.
Yet as populations become more multicultural, museums are facing an increasing number of patrons that encounter language barriers because of monolingual exhibits and staff. This is why the emergent trend in providing translation services in museum settings has been on the rise. In a world where museum curators are duty-bound to ensure as many people as possible enjoy the opportunities their museums represent, offering multilingual support promotes accessibility, inclusion, and equality.
The Impetus Behind the Move to Multilingual Museum Spaces
Put simply, restricting the ability for whole demographics to benefit from museum spaces by limiting exhibits, signage, and staff to a single language is antithetical to the mission of museum engagement. Museums require engagement, and that engagement is most plentiful when exhibit spaces are accessible and inclusive in as many ways as possible. It’s only through accessibility and inclusivity that true equality in education emerges.
Museums have a responsibility to all their patrons, not just the ones who can understand the language of the majority. In the United States alone, research shows that the number of Spanish-speaking residents is roughly 53 million people, only around 11.6 million of which are multilingual. Not having translation services available to these remaining effectively shuts them out of museum spaces in the United States. This, of course, is not equality.
Cost and Effectiveness of Museum Translation Methods
Transforming museum spaces into those that are welcoming for non-native English speakers can be done in a myriad of ways. At a bare minimum, exhibit labels can be made available to multicultural patrons by having them translated into their native languages and displayed proudly alongside the English exhibit label. Other signage throughout the museum can likewise be presented in a multilingual format, making it easy for patrons to physically navigate museum spaces more easily.
More advanced accessibility and inclusion methods for museums can include more than just the written word. Hiring multilingual docents to lead tours and answer questions provides the same level of service to patrons who don’t speak English as those who do. Where funding limitations preclude the hiring of multilingual staff, self-guided audio tours available in more than one language are a viable alternative that can be a cost-effective solution that promotes equal access to museum resources.
A Symbiotic Relationship
The relationship between patrons and museums is truly a symbiotic one. A museum needs patrons in order to survive and thrive, and patrons benefit greatly from time spent in museum spaces. Museums need to promote this relationship by providing better access to all potential patrons, and that means using inclusive means such as translation services to ensure every individual who walks through their doors has the same opportunities, regardless of language barriers.