English Comes in Really Handy at Museums. Yay Privilege!

I have a problem. And I’m not entirely sure how to solve it. My problem has to do with privilege, language, and of course, museums. As a native English speaker, I, along with most Americans, am extremely privileged. No matter what country I go to, there will be someone who speaks English. I will be ok not knowing the native language.

In fact, in Europe, many places, because of the large number of visiting English speakers and that English is the official language of the European Union, actually have English in menus, signs, or museum exhibits in addition to the native language. When I went to Europe this summer, I went to many museums and language was not an issue. The employees, the writings on the wall, and the audio guides made sure I had access to any information I could possibly want to know. And whether the Rijksmuseum or the DDR Museum, the websites always had an English option.

So when I visited the Stasimuseum in Berlin, I was shocked with the different experience. The museum documents the workings and experiences of the Soviet reign of East Germany after WWII, specifically the secret police called the Stasi. The museum had tiny snippets in English and I speak some German, but I had never felt so clueless in a museum before. There were entire rooms where I had no clue what they were saying. It got to the point where the museum was just plain boring. To be fair, this museum had a lot of things working against it that day, mainly that the museum, being an old building, had no air conditioning which proved to be near unbearable in 95 degree weather. But the Stasi is not something that should be remotely boring, their undercover informants hid spy cameras in purses and concealed lenses with buttons! But that museum was rough to get through. I knew there was a lot of great information that I was missing and I couldn’t do anything about it.

That experience got me thinking on what it must be like to visit a museum and not be privileged enough to understand anything about it. This only happened to me once, and even then there was some English, and it was awful. Many museums can boast about their accommodations for people who speak different languages, but of course, not all languages are included and many museums are only presented in one language. I have no research to back this up, but if I had to guess, I would say that America, as an English speaking country, probably drops the ball more often than in Europe, which has many languages crammed into one small space. I looked at multiple American museums’ websites and many of them, including the Experience Music Project, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Franklin Institute, did not have an option to choose a different language, at least, none that I could find. Some museums, like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, are trying to make an effort to overcome language barriers. For example, the LACMA website does provide Spanish options. However, the information in Spanish is limited compared to that of the English website. Improvement is still clearly welcome as this is only one museum and it has only one language option.

It is no surprise then that the actual museums are also lacking in language accessibility. I find it disturbing how many people can not appreciate museums just because they don’t speak English.

This, unfortunately, is not all that simple of a problem to solve. It would be simple to say to just fix the website and get audio guides in different languages, but what about museums without audio guides? What about less popular languages? What about small museums that can’t afford any changes? Until this problem gets fixed, I have to say that I am very thankful to be privileged to speak English as my native language.

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One thought on “English Comes in Really Handy at Museums. Yay Privilege!

  1. I had not thought about the effects of language barriers on museum accessibility until reading your post. After reading your post I found myself wondering about possible solutions to this problem. I believe the integration of technology into exhibits will be the most effective method for overcoming the language barrier. Every year translator computer programs become more accurate and natural in their translations. Ideally, every museum exhibit could have audio tours in hundreds of languages. Also, providing touch screens in place of static information plaques would allow visitors to select their preferred language. However, as you pointed out, most museums are very small institutions and do not currently have the money to incorporate these technologies into their exhibits. In these instances, I think it would be effective for curators and exhibit designers to send people in to the exhibit during its early stages to observe the object sans-language. Designers should ask people to view the exhibit before they place any signage containing text in the exhibit and see how effectively their intended message has been communicated without the use of words. This way, they will have a better idea of what the exhibit experience will be like for disabled visitors and visitors with language barriers and how they could improve the exhibit before it opens to the general public.

    Liked by 1 person

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