Museum exhibitions offer a wealth of sensory experiences, with visual, auditory, and tactile elements for visitors to explore. However, for a truly immersive environment, language is key. Surprisingly, despite 20% of the U.S. population speaking a language other than English at home, most museums aren’t doing enough to make their exhibits easy to understand for non-English speakers.
Creating more accessible experiences for speakers of other languages has become increasingly important for museums to build meaningful connections with local communities and international visitors. By localizing content for multilingual audiences, museums are able to enhance inclusion and accessibility.
Here are some best practices for boosting language inclusivity in order to translate the museum experience – as well as that of cultural institutions as a whole – for the diverse visitors that come through your doors.
Why Museum Accessibility Matters
Museums have the important mission of preserving and sharing art, culture, and history. By prioritizing accessibility, museums promote equal opportunities for individuals with different language backgrounds, disabilities, or specific needs to engage and connect with the exhibits.
But when it comes to offering multilingual experiences, many fall short of their vision to promote diversity. Museums often face limited resources and translating exhibits and experiences can be costly. Yet, it’s a vital step towards fulfilling the educational focus of museums.
In particular, the lack of language inclusivity can be especially harmful when the museum doesn’t have multilingual experiences available for its local population. Take for example cities such as Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles that have even larger populations of non-English speakers. In these cases, translating the museum experience is even more urgent to welcome diverse local populations, including bilingual speakers who may interact with more than one language.
How to Boost Inclusivity with Translation and other Language Initiatives
Initiatives for reaching multilingual museum audiences can run the gamut, depending on your institutional goals and target audiences. Here are key ways to promote inclusivity through multilingual experiences.
1. Translate exhibit materials
→ Physical exhibits, such as object labels, signs, panel texts, visitor guides and interactive activities
To start, translating exhibit materials can be a high-impact way to increase accessibility. In this way, museum-goers can engage with the collections in front of them through multilingual labels, panel texts and visitor guides.
This also includes transcreating interactive activities within the exhibit. For the “Angkor: the Lost Empire of Cambodia,” exhibit, our linguists had to reimagine an exhibit game in Spanish. The challenge was to put together “broken” phrases on ancient tablets into “inscriptions” that made sense, so our translators ensured that this wordplay worked in Spanish as well.
It’s also important to make sure the translations resonate in the local language. In an article for Glasstire titled “The Case for Multilingual Museums,” the author describes how museums in North Texas have approached the challenges of bilingual exhibits. Many have found success working with local translators who understand the language profile of their Spanish-speaking residents and have adapted the exhibits to connect with them.
2. Offer audio guides and tours in multiple languages
→ Audio tours to enhance the visitor experience
Another top way to boost inclusion is to offer audio guides and tours in multiple languages. Some museums choose to provide live guides with bilingual museum staff, while others pre-record information that visitors can listen to on a headset. Museums with speakers of many languages can ensure greater access by providing headsets with multiple language options.
3. Leverage technology for multilingual experiences
→ Media experiences, such as video voice overs, on-screen subtitles, interactive media, app games, QR code guides, AR/VR activities
In addition, museums can harness the power of technology to provide multilingual experiences. This goes for traditional media such as voiceovers and subtitles, as well as more innovative ones such as interactive games, QR codes and VR activities.
For digital interactives, museums can translate onscreen text and allow users to toggle between several language options. Videos that are on display on a loop can be localized to display two languages simultaneously. By creating bilingual subtitles, visitors speaking different languages can enjoy the video at the same time.
Visitors can also utilize their cell phones to access digital content in their native language. Some museums choose to display QR codes for visitors to scan, enabling new levels of engagement within the museum. Since translated content can be stored online, there are no space limitations, and this way museums can expand the experience into many languages, rather than just one. Through the same QR codes, museums can provide access to audio tours, multimedia or supplemental education materials that visitors can experience alongside the exhibition.
4. Don’t ignore non-exhibit content
→ Non-exhibit content, such as press releases, ads, brochures, websites, apps, promotional texts, educational materials, exhibition catalogs
The museum experience also goes beyond exhibits. It’s important for museums to consider translating non-exhibit content on their brochures, websites and ads. With it, museum-goers can access key information about their visit, pricing, open collections, etc. without barriers.
Museums may also consider translating wayfinding signage around their buildings to ensure that visitors, regardless of their language background, can navigate the museum space effectively. By providing clear and translated signage, maps, and directions, museums create a more inclusive and welcoming environment for a diverse range of visitors.
5. Connect with diverse communities at events
→ Event content, such as programs, live interpretation, real-time lecture captioning, focus groups and more
Museums also host numerous cultural and educational events throughout the year. To connect with diverse communities, it’s a great idea to offer programs and live interpretation in non-English languages whenever possible.
In particular, cultural events such as festivals or lectures aligned with community interests should have this type of interpretation available to offer a more meaningful and accessible experience for visitors.
Inclusion Initiatives That Go Beyond Language
While language plays a vital role in inclusion, fostering diversity goes beyond translation. Engaging with diverse audiences will also depend on creating other initiatives that go beyond language.
1. Make the most of visuals
Inclusion and accessibility in museums can be greatly enhanced through the strategic use of visuals such as maps, diagrams, illustrations, and touch screens. By ensuring clear and intuitive signage, providing multilingual visuals, incorporating interactive touch screens, utilizing visual storytelling techniques, offering tactile and sensory experiences, ensuring digital accessibility, and collaborating with diverse communities, museums can create a more inclusive and welcoming environment for visitors of all backgrounds and abilities.
These visual strategies enable individuals with different language backgrounds and disabilities to engage, navigate, and appreciate exhibits with ease, fostering a more inclusive and enriching museum experience for all.
2. Offer accessible experiences
What’s more, museums should try to tailor experiences for visitors with different needs. Some examples of accessible experiences include:
- Verbal description tours
- 3D models of art for the blind
- Sign language interpretation
- ASL vlogs for exhibits
- Large-print materials
- Sensory-friendly experiences
- Special hours for visitors with mental or learning disabilities
3. Promote diversity in exhibits and programming
Museums should also consider how their programming can elevate inclusion initiatives. Planning exhibits, showcasing diverse artifacts and telling stories from different cultures is a great way to improve accessibility for visitors with varying backgrounds and interests.
Working with community groups to co-curate diverse exhibits is an excellent step forward to encourage diversity at the museum. Community groups bring unique perspectives, knowledge, and experiences that enrich the exhibit content. Their involvement ensures authentic representation of diverse voices and cultures, providing a more accurate and inclusive portrayal of the community being represented.
Exhibits co-curated with community groups often resonate more strongly with visitors, as they reflect the lived experiences and interests of diverse communities. This translates to more visitor engagement, and encourages broader participation and support from the community.
4. Train staff to be culturally competent
Another aspect of inclusion is to ensure a welcoming environment. It’s essential to hire diverse staff, as well as train them on cultural competence and more. This way, they’ll be well-equipped to communicate with visitors of diverse backgrounds and abilities.
5. Survey museum-goers to understand their needs
Finally, every museum has a unique population, with a range of needs and interests. Museums can conduct surveys to understand their visitors more thoroughly and adapt their programming and initiatives accordingly.
By collaborating with multilingual group facilitators or interpreters, museums can gather valuable feedback on user experiences, identify language-related challenges, and understand how to better cater to their needs.
Building Inclusive Museums with Multilingual Connections
Museums and cultural institutions should celebrate both the cultures of their exhibits and their visitors. By providing multilingual materials, experiences, and technologies, museums can better serve their visitors and promote the cultural inclusion that’s at the core of their mission.
At Multilingual Connections, we’ve witnessed firsthand the importance of translating exhibits and experiences. We partner with a range of museums and cultural institutions and utilize best practices to provide culturally-nuanced translation that meets the requirements of diverse multilingual audiences.
Looking for a reliable solution to tackle real-time translation needs? Our team has the resources and expertise to ensure high-quality translation services. Contact us now to learn more about our wide range of offerings!
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