Fall 2015
New England Museums Now Preview

Fall 2015: The Language of Museums

  • The Language of Museum by Sarah Franke, Principal, MuseumBabel
  • Joyful Museums: Together We Can Make Work Better by Marieke Van Damme, Executive Director, Cambridge Historical Society
  • Speaking of Inclusivity by Margaret Middleton, Exhibit Designer, Boston Children's Museum
  • The Values Portfolio Workbook:  Maine’s Approach to Values-based Collection Assessment by By Sheri Leahan, Executive Director, Washburn-Norlands Living History Center; NEMA Board





The Language of Museum

by Sarah Franke, Principal, MuseumBabel

Our modern definition of the museum is clear - museums are not just warehouses for stuff. They are fundamentally social institutions. And there is nothing more social than language. It’s the building block of human relationships and our primary channel of learning and exchange.

Recent research indicates that more than one in five US residents (over 21%) speak a language other than English at home. Over 300 languages are spoken throughout the United States. That’s not counting the languages spoken by tourists and visitors coming to the US from all over the world. Museums are reacting to these demographic transformations in various ways. How do they fit into this multilingual picture?

In cooperation with the New England Museum Association, I distributed a survey in April 2015 to find out what today's multilingual museum landscape looks like. We received 72 responses from museums in New England. Of these respondents, 47% report offering multilingual resources and 53% say they do not offer any at this time.

Of those museums that do offer multilingual resources, they are located overwhelmingly in urban areas (74%). Slightly less than one third (29.4%) have operating budgets under $500,000. The largest segment of “yes” respondents fall within the $1 and $3 million (35%) budget range; the remaining “yes” museums have budgets greater than $3 million (27%). While the “no” respondents are fairly evenly distributed across budget size and geography, the “yes” respondents trend toward larger institutions in and near cities.

 Oranizational Operating Budgets

Oranizational Operating Budgets

The vast majority of multilingual resources are in Spanish. In second place is French, followed by German, Japanese, and Portuguese. In a nod to New England’s ever increasing cultural and linguistic diversity, museums also offer materials in Korean, Arabic, Polish, and Khmer, among other languages.

In which languages does you museum offer multingual resources?

Several respondents said that based on visitor feedback and demographic data, there was no need to offer resources in another language. For example, one respondent wrote: “Being in a very rural area, we don't get many non-English speaking visitors to the museum or to the region. [It] is not known for its diversity and the town we live in…is even less diverse. So this is not a high priority for us right now.” It’s understandable that for some organizations, developing multilingual materials isn’t a smart, strategic, or mission-appropriate activity.

The vast majority of “no” respondents cited time and financial shortages as the primary obstacle to creating these materials - a familiar sentiment for those of us in the field! This resource scarcity presents a substantial challenge, despite eagerness to begin these types of projects. “It is one of the things on our 'to-do' list, but it never seems to be a top priority in terms of resources (both financial and in staff time)," said one museum professional in the survey.


That said, the museums that do offer multilingual resources feel strongly that the effort to develop and share them is worth it. These reasons are reinforced by current research. Multilingualism is an important, forward-looking aspect of museum sustainability.

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