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The Language of Museums: Soft Power at Work

February 2, 2016

Two years ago I arrived in Barcelona not knowing any Spanish at all and quickly realized that without neither Spanish nor Catalan (the main language of Barcelona)-I would never understand nor integrate into my new home, let alone be able to buy groceries, take the metro, decipher road signs or basically go about my daily life.

Despite having spent most of my adult life living in multi-lingual countries- first Canada with its French-English bilingualism and then South Africa- with its 11 official languages, and having always been a firm advocate of preserving minority languages-I had never lived before in a country whose language of power and business I did not speak.

Two years later- my language learning journey has been slow and challenging. I can order from restaurants now, more or less follow the news or the gist of a conversation, and figure out if I am illegally parked. But I continue to stutter and stammer when I try and tackle more than pleasantries, I can’t rant nor orate, and despite the wonders of Google Translate, I can’t fully participate in the cultural, political or economic life of this vibrant, complex, exciting city. It is driving me crazy.

A few months ago I started taking a unique language course at the Art of Language. We visit museums and galleries and our lessons are a combination of new vocabulary, grammar and conversation relating to the exhibits we see.  Great idea right? And it absolutely is. People who teach second language learning speak of the importance of engaging learners physically with language, using multiple mediums to present information, a low-stress environment to practice, and social interaction. Museums inherently provide all of this and more.

BUT, as I have struggled through many museums, I have come to realize that while museums can offer a unique and excellent environment for language learning- most do not.  Instead, museum text all too often has its own impenetrable language which is elitist and exclusionary- the purview of only a select few who share the education and the background knowledge of the curators. Many visitors can’t understand what it says even if they do speak the language; second language speakers are completely lost.

The European Union has 24 official languages, 60 indigenous or minority languages, more than 250 languages spoken by newcomers to the continent,  and over 582 million international tourist arrivals in 2014 who speak even more languages. In fact, most people in Europe- excluding the UK and Ireland, speak at least 2 languages. This a multi-lingual continent, where the link between language, power and belonging is as important now with the current ‘migrant crisis’ as it was when the EU was first established and as it has been for centuries. In Barcelona, Catalonia, language is an especially hot topic.

The Many Languages of the EU

Museums could do much more to support integration and understanding if they helped people who are not native language speakers navigate through the treasures they contain. Newcomers could make a much stronger connection to the stories of their new homes if they could understand them.

In our book Cities, Museums and Soft Power– we identify accessibility and diversity as key to a museum’s ability to be legitimate, relevant and to thus exercise soft power among the people who live around it and who visit it.

For museums to activate their soft power- it’s time to not only get rid of obfuscating or meaningless jargon in museum text but also consider some basic rules of thumb for second language learning to help everybody understand what is intended.

  1. Use short, succinct sentences
  2. Use the present tense where possible
  3. Avoid jargon and idioms
  4. Use infographics and photos
  5. Write each text around only one idea
  6. Writing correctly in all languages you display respects all visitors equally
  7. Convey meaning not direct translations
  8. If you commit to offering content in more than one language, make sure you translate everything. Nobody wants to feel cut out of the conversation

Do you have other strategies for making your museum accessible to second language speakers and learners? We’d love to hear from you.

 

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Ngaire Blankenberg

About The Author

Ngaire Blankenberg is internationally recognized for her work planning innovative cultural spaces. As European Director and Principal Consultant at Lord Cultural Resources, Ngaire advises the private sector, governments and museums throughout the world on ways to develop their cultural assets for public benefit.

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2 Comments

Madeline Smolarz / February 2, 2016

A team of my Master of Museum Studies peers and I recently created a program for the University of Toronto’s Centre for International Experience at the Royal Ontario Museum. It is designed to help increase intercultural competence and is geared towards international students. We made it one of our learning outcomes to move past museums’ “impenetrable…elitist and exclusionary” (to quote your article) language and jargon by teaching a few key terms to the students. We introduced these “museum words” at various stages throughout the program, and then we encouraged the students to use these words in discussion with us and with each other. I’m proud to say that some of them – most of whom were ESL – did just that. Taking the time to give people the knowledge to understand and communicate important yet perhaps difficult concepts in the museum sphere can be very empowering for everyone involved.


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Luna Venturi-Wellington / February 5, 2016

I found this a fascinating read on many levels – I have also called Barcelona home for a few years now and can relate to your stories and linguistic challenges 🙂

I agree that museums should do much more (and/or better) to activate this incredibly effective soft power and be more inclusive and welcoming to multilingual visitors.

Points 6,7 and 8 especially resonate with me, as a translation and language services provider. My decision to set up a translation agency which works exclusively with museums and cultural sites and only relies on translators with a specific background in the sector stems from the frustration of going to exhibitions and reading exhibition materials which were badly translated, if not slaughtered. Translations are often too literal, unidiomatic, showing a lack of knowledge of cultural nuances, subtleties and subject matter. The problem is you end up with an unclear and obscure meaning (or unintentionally hilarious results! Google Translate-style) that leaves the visitor puzzled rather than engaged or better informed. Not the right materials for museums to fulfill their mandate to educate and engage with visitors and not good for second language learning purposes either, as you rightly point out.

What I also found worrying is that museums are often unaware of the low quality of the multilingual materials they display in their institutions, which can not only be detrimental to the visitors’ experience and their levels of understanding and enjoyment of the collection but also be damaging to the museum’s reputation.

Anyway, I could rant on for hours on this subject (in English, Italian…and maybe Spanish too :)!)

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insight into the subject!


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