In my travels, I’ve noticed distinct differences in how museums approach multilingual labels, and of course, the ability to understand and share in a museum’s message is, in itself, a message about politics and power. In Europe, labels seem to appear primarily in the native language, plus English, the language that most tourists seem to speak to some degree. There, it seems to be an issue about access for relatively well-heeled travelers (which is also, I assume, why I see labels now in Russian, Japanese and Chinese).
In the United States, there is some effort made for tourists, primarily at larger museums, but increasingly new efforts are made to provide multilingual labels for our community members, not just tourists. Thanks to Nina Simon of Museum 2.0 and a guest post there by Steve Yalowitz, I’ve learned about a new study that looked at bilingual labels (Spanish) from a visitor perspective. As Steve writes,
access to content—the most obvious benefit of bilingual labels—is just the tip of the iceberg. Bilingual interpretation expands the way visitors experience and perceive museums, shifting their emotional connection to the institutions.
The study, the Bilingual Exhibit Research Initiative (BERI), supported by the National Science Foundation identified three important ways in which visitors use those labels: codeswitching, back and forth between languages; facilitating, particularly intergenerational experiences; and deepening emotional connections.
Don’t all of our museums want to deepen those emotional connections? If that’s the case, then American museums should be embracing Spanish and other languages and European museums should also be embracing the languages of their newest citizens. Please share your perspectives, and your successful examples in the comments!