Meanwhile, I continue to noodle away at some of the issues Gregory raises in the lecture. Here’s the one I’m currently contemplating—what is the role of Spanish-language advertising or exhibit labels in museums? Gregory cites the intersecting trends of second and third generation Latinos becoming fluent in English, and these generations converging with the usual demographics of (college educated, affluent) museum attendees. In other words, he contends that Latinos who are likely to come to your museum speak English anyway. He scoffs at what he feels is a patronizing attempt by the Getty Museum to welcome Latino audiences by placing banners in Spanish down in “the ‘hood,” while the museum itself is up on "the hill,” remote and relatively inaccessible.
Clearly the answer is going to vary from museum to museum and community to community. Tammie Kuhn, director of the Children’s Museum of Houston and one of our webcast panelists tomorrow, notes that the Latino communities of Houston are different from those of Los Angeles, and children’s museums attract a different audience than art museums. Some museums may well have visitors who need or welcome Spanish language labeling to make their exhibits more accessible. But there are other considerations as well:
- P.R. aimed at potential visitors. Marketing and labeling in other languages (whether it is Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean or Russian) sends the message that your museum doesn’t assume it’s is only of interest to English-speaking audiences. Even if many members of a given culture don’t need or want your text in their ancestral tongue, they may appreciate your courtesy in providing it. It’s a way of signaling “we see you.” (Ok, yay, I saw Avatar this weekend.)
- P.R aimed at potential donors. If funders want to promote diversity, the museum may be signaling its sensitivity and responsiveness to these concerns. (Whether or not the foreign language materials are actually effective in reaching diverse audiences.)
- Tourism. Spanish language labels (or Chinese for that matter) may be of most use to the upper middle class international tourists visiting your museum.
- Education of the English-speaking audiences. Giving prominent placement to foreign language texts may help build awareness about your community’s diversity, and promote tolerance for and appreciation of other cultures. Maybe it will even encourage some Americans to break with our traditional mono-linguism and learn a foreign language. (Am I being hopelessly optimistic?)