How Can Museums Reach Multilingual Audiences?

No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia

Installation view: No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 22–May 22, 2013. Peter Snyder © 2013 Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

There’s a challenge that all institutions—and especially those with international reach—face today: how can they best share resources with audiences who speak a range of languages? Translation technology and visitors’ expectations have changed considerably since art museums started grappling with this problem by providing multilingual information and resources on their websites. And research supports further efforts in this direction: not surprisingly, the visitors surveyed during the 2013 Bilingual Exhibit Research Initiative were more satisfied with their visits, felt more valued by the institution, and were able to engage more deeply with the exhibition content when they were provided with interpretive exhibition materials in their language. The benefits are clear, then, but the challenge remains: how should museums prioritize creating these multilingual resources and how should we then share them?

For the Guggenheim, connecting with our multilingual audience is obviously a pressing concern. As a global institution, we have a growing number of resources that have been published in different languages, and we are trying to find ways to make them readily available to our multilingual audiences abroad and here in New York City. One example: we are exploring how to make the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative’s upcoming exhibition on Latin American Art more accessible to people living in New York City who speak Spanish—about 25 percent of the city’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. We are also considering the best ways to feature multilingual resources created for both past and upcoming exhibitions online.

We have been eager to discuss this significant issue with other museum staff and with the people whose language needs we hope to meet. And now we’re getting a chance to do just that: on Tuesday, April 15, starting at 12 pm EDT, we will be co-facilitating a tweet chat with the Queens Museum on this very topic.

This came about thanks to the Queens Museum’s weekly online chat, #EduTues. Every Tuesday, the museum hosts a live chat from their Twitter account: they pose a question related to museum education, and participants respond, asking follow-up questions, sharing resources, and making recommendations based around the topic of the day (including the hashtag #EduTues on all tweets).

Last month, we at the Guggenheim chimed in to suggest that they dedicate one #EduTues discussion to the question of how best to provide access to multilingual resources and programs. As you can see in the Twitter thread below, the Queens Museum was excited to talk about these issues as well, and we hatched a plan to run this discussion together.

We hope you’ll join us and lend your own voice to this important conversation. If you are multilingual or have family members or friends who speak other languages, what organizations have been particularly successful in providing multilingual resources? If you are a museum professional, what strategies have you found to be most helpful in creating and distributing these resources?

To participate, you’ll need a Twitter account, but you don’t have to have an account to follow along with #EduTues chats (you can view Tweets that contain the hashtag #EduTues via search). If you have an opinion on this topic, but do not want to participate using a Twitter account, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

  • cliccamuseo

    To provide
    multilingual information on the web is difficult. In 2009, I created a
    bilingual magazine of
 art and culture to be used by American and Italian
    students. As long as the webzine was private for my 
students, there were no
    problems, but when we took it public, to a wider 
audience, we began to see
    difficulties. One of our questions has been: when we 
write an article, should
    we publish it in both languages on the same post? On 
the same day? With the
    same pictures? This is the “airline magazine article” model, and it doesn’t
    seem to 
work for our webzine. But we don’t want to ignore content that
    might be interesting to both groups of readers.

    • Rebecca Mir

      Grazie per la risposta!

      The “airline magazine article” model is an interesting way to describe that one-size-fits-all approach to providing multilingual content. Most of our multilingual content is very similar to our English content, too.

      I’m curious: what feedback were you getting that indicated that publishing the same content in these two languages at the same time was problematic? Have you experimented with publishing in different ways with different issues of the webzine and done any evaluation with your audiences to see if they prefer varied types of content? It does make sense that people from different cultures would be interested in different content! In your case it seems like this “Daily Question” is a good example of content that is specific to your audience of English-speakers:

      We have Perspectives blog posts that have been written as a part of our Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, that have (so far) been published in two languages (English and the madrelingua of the author) on the same day. Here’s an example of our most recent Perspectives blog, “No Me Token,” which is in both Spanish and English, same content, same pictures, and was published on the same day:

      I would be interested to hear from our (growing!) Spanish-speaking online audience about whether or not this type of content makes sense for them, or if they’d prefer something else!

  • Ajay Mahajan

    I have used Museum Apps rather than Audio wands to give visitors multi media (Video, Audio & Text) & multilingual, interactive and engaging experience to the museum visitors. For further information pls contact :

  • Carol

    Most of the exhibitions(no matter official/big exhibition or gallery exhibition) in Shanghai are bilingual already…. but here…. it seems to me only big organization, official art museums provide multilingual information…

    • Rebecca Mir

      Hi Carol! If by “here” you mean New York City, it is not a standard (for museums) to provide all content in multiple languages. Developing multilingual resources requires a significant amount of resources (both monetary and dedicated staff), and so determining when/where/how to share those materials can be challenging and requires an in-depth understanding of your audience, which varies from museum to museum here in NYC. When working with global partners, we (i.e. those of us working at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum) try to provide support in the development of multilingual resources, and listen to our partners’ expertise. One example is how the family guide developed for the exhibition No Country: Art for South and Southeast Asia was published in English for the exhibition’s debut in New York City and in English and Traditional Chinese when it traveled to Asia Society Hong Kong Center:

  • Robert Cochran

    The Six Nations Indian Museum staff are multilingual. American Indian art, crafts, and artifacts are on display at this small museum dedicated to preserving the culture of the Iroquois Confederacy—the Mohawks, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora. It was started in 1954 by Mohawk Ray Fadden and his family, who still run the place. Baskets, canoes, paintings, beadwork, and other items are hung on the walls and from the ceilings. The museum is 14 miles northeast of Saranac Lake in Onchiota, NY.

    • Rebecca Mir

      Robert, thanks for mentioning the Six Nations Indian Museum’s multilingual staff talent. Do you know which languages the family and their employees speak? Or if they have any non-English language programs or resources available? One of the recommendations made by the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) in published research on this particular topic (and by folks that participated in the #EduTues chat that we co-facilitated with Queens Museum) was to focus on cultivating and hiring multicultural, multilingual staff and volunteers and draw upon their preexisting knowledge to build long term relationships with culturally diverse audiences.

  • Cosette Malinowski

    Hello, Rebecca. In case you need help in managing the translation of the museum’s website (or any other software associated to it), allow me to recommend a localization app where this can be done efficiently: You can bring your own translation team here to work collaboratively, the interface is very friendly. You can slo automate the process a lot, by using features like API and translation memory.