Tuesday, January 26, 2010

¡Bienvenidos a Nuestro Museo!

We are bustling about with last minute preparations for the CFM webcast tomorrow—checking equipment (will the video camera work?) and finalizing supplemental material (check out the Discussion Guide!) Over 300 individuals and groups are registered to watch and chat! Registration closes at the end of the day today, so go sign up now to join what is shaping up to be a heated exploration of diversifying museum audiences.

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?)
If your museum uses foreign languages for marketing or exhibit interpretation, which of the above describe your goals? Or do you have other motivations? And do you formally evaluate the success of your efforts to achieve these goals? Please, share…

1 comment:

Jenna said...

Some of my favorite museums have included labels in multiple languages, though unfortunately most only for special exhibits. The Boston Children's Museum has a really fun exhibit Tales from the land of Gullah, which included English and Spanish. For me personally, it was a fun chance to try to remember what I learned in college Spanish. I've spent a great deal of time visiting the museums of Paris, and while almost all have brochures available in a number of languages, many include other languages in labels. For a country as picky as they are about their language, I was pretty impressed. My favorite is the war museum at L'Ecole Militaire, which features really wonderful exhibits on WW1 and WW2. All if the exhibit us labeled in French, English, and German. I hope more museums will consider using the languages that are relevant to their exhibits!