Visiting a museum and not understanding anything around you

by Lior Diklshpan

As the child of a father who worked for an airline company, I was lucky to travel to many different countries around the world—we did not pay for our flights or our hotels (don’t hate the player, hate the game.) My mother always believed in learning by going to museums and much more. The problem was that I was never able to relate to the many amazing things I saw, since I could not understand most of it. I could not read the labels, I could not understand the tour guides, and as much as my parents try to translate everything, they could not really keep up. I was left only understanding half of the things I saw.


Some museums were perfect for a child like myself—children’s museums, or any exhibition where I was able to touch, walk around, explore, move things around, meet museum professionals who played games with me—and other kids—in short, everything that was different from just walking around.

I remember one case where my sister and I took part in a show about electricity. I was six years old and my sister was fourteen, and so both of us did not really have the skills to understand or speak English. I can honestly say I had no clue what the guy who brought us to the stage was saying, but nevertheless I understood everything related to static electricity. The museum professional did not give up on either my sister or me, and used every possible means to make sure we understood, including acting, moving us around physically, and repeating the different experiments.

That was fun, and someplace hidden in my parents’ house 10,000 miles away from here there is a picture of my sister and I with our hair up in the air (yes, once upon a time I had long hair on my head.)

Today when I can actually understand, read, and engage with the people around me, I find museums a great place to visit, learn, and spend time with friends (especially in the wintertime.) I think that language is a problem museums will always have, BUT, with upcoming technology I don’t think it will be long till we will walk around museums with our cell phones, which will translate everything for us on the move with different apps.

In conclusion, we see museums working to deepen relationships with recent immigrants, English Language learners and international visitors in several ways.

How is the museum community interacting with this group?

Museums are attempting to be accessible, by providing brochures in several languages. Several museums are providing exhibit labels in other languages. While the effectiveness of both brochures and multi-language labels deserve further evaluation and research, there are some language options presented to visitors.

While examples of advertised programming towards new immigrants and English Language Learners are scarce, the J. Paul Getty Museum has a school-based curriculum for both beginning and advanced ESL students. We feel that many existing programs can be adjusted for ELL/ESOL students with input from teachers and other professionals. As our local communities continue to grow, it might be in the museum’s best interest to look in this direction.

What is the most effective way to encourage growth and comfort in their new setting?


What can museums do to foster a sense of community for recent immigrants?

Based on our research, we feel that museums and cultural institutions need to acknowledge both the prior experience and heritage of the visitor. Museums should recognize the diversity of backgrounds in their visitor populations. So far, exhibits focusing on immigration or other cultures seem to be the most common effort by museum professionals.

In terms of museum education, establishing common ground and a sense of inclusion would be crucial in programming. By looking at community partnerships, museums could look into pairing up with adult literacy organizations and plan events. Museums can also work to incorporate new programming and materials into existing exhibits that deal with multiculturalism, immigration, and other related topics. Resources like CALTA21 and Australia’s Museum Victoria’s People Like Me initiative can provide a wealth of background knowledge that can be adapted to museums across the country! Museums can provide a safe space to promote understanding, foster a sense of community and encourage self-expression with this diverse audience.




Bridging the gap between content and language

by Elyse Warren

In a world that is becoming ever more globalized, museums are grappling with how to bridge the gap between language and accessibility of their content. Whether it be labels or brochures about the objects, museums as a general collective are trying to adapt their approach to producing content to better meet the needs of new immigrants and English language learners.

Based on this, the J Paul Getty Museum produced a study on the role and effectiveness of their brochures for Spanish speaking audiences in 2008. In their evaluation, they found that the audience took only 10,350 brochures in Spanish compared to that of 30,712 in English. The researchers discovered that the Spanish speaking audience preferred to utilize the labels of the objects for information rather than the brochure. Interviews conducted in this study revealed as well that the Spanish speaking audiences would like to see the museum embrace the use of bilingual content throughout the exhibits in addition to the brochures. In response, the museum adopted a new policy on second-language didactics that would allow for the translation of the most integral details on labels and would note which languages need to be incorporated for each individual exhibit.

The study reveals the need for not only translations of content in one format, but in multiple forms and individualized for the audiences of each exhibit. The Bilingual Exhibits Research Initiative sponsored by the NSF Pathways project also sheds light on the need to increase accessibility for ESL and new immigrants. This specific project looked at accessibility for Latinos in science museums. In their evaluation, they found that museums that had bilingual content on labels or brochures for Spanish speaking audiences did not know how they interacted with the material or how to measure the effectiveness of their outcomes.

Both studies reveal the challenge that museums face in adapting their content and measuring the effectiveness of it for new immigrants or ESL audiences. The investment of time and money needs to be dedicated by museums to conduct more of these evaluations and see what solutions are best to implement. In doing so, museums can create a better space of inclusion and accessibility for these audiences to learn and enjoy the content.

Creating and Protecting the Patchwork Identity of the United States: Museums and Immigration


That single word can inspire long rants about jobs, taxes, drugs, illegal activity, etc. Historically, immigration has been a hot topic in the United States as different ethnicities and cultures arrived in the country. From the Irish being shunned to current battles over illegal immigration, each group has struggled to find a place and become part of the American identity.

Museums, historic sites, and National/State Parks have quickly become places of refuge for immigrants to the United States and their supporters. Many museums have taken it upon themselves to protect the cultural roots of immigrants and celebrate the diversity and traditions that immigrants brought and continue to share with the American Identity.

Recently, the Smithsonian American Art Museum created a special exhibit highlighting the culture of Latino Americans. The pieces depict the unique architecture of the ancient people of Central America, the colors and patterns used in textiles, and paintings and photographs that capture the dual identities of these artists. Even though three out of the five artists featured were born in the United States and not immigrants, they felt the need to represent their heritage and culture and show how it fits into their identity as a citizen of the United States. (

The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience created the Immigration and Civil Rights Network for museums and historic sites in 2008 to encourage the continued representation of immigration histories and contributions to America. They continue to advocate the necessity of recognizing the rights of immigrants as they come to this country and making sure they recognize their place within it.  The goal is to create opportunities “for safe, open dialogue on immigration accessible in every community.” (

Immigration is an important part of the American identity. Even those who can trace their ancestry back to the first settlers must acknowledge the fact that those people were immigrants to this country. Immigration has created a rich and diverse culture within the United States. Museums must continue to be advocates for preserving and celebrating those differences, which will allow recent immigrants and the descendants of immigrants to recognize their place and take pride in what they have to offer.

VTS: An Entry Point for ELL

As museums continue to engage with immigration, language barriers and other cultural shifts, museums can look for inspiration from the Whitney Museum. The Whitney recently piloted a Youth Insights Introductions program in summer 2014. This program involved 15 New York City high school students, who are self-identified English Language Learners. According to the Whitney, this free resource ‘welcomes teens…to explore, discover and discuss American art, and to create original works of art and writing.’ Others museums have used other resources to create programs for these audiences.

This pilot program builds on the Whitney’s Youth Insights programs.

This blog post introduces the idea of incorporating Visual Thinking Strategies in art museums to engage new audiences, particularly those who are recent immigrants or current English Language Learners. A great resource for museums looking to broaden their programming is CALTA21, Cultures and Literacies Through Art for the 21st Century.


CALTA21 is a model initiative funded through a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The intent of this initiative, led by Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York (CUNY), is to build the capacity of museum-community college partnerships, to empower adult immigrant English language learners (ELL) while strengthening their literacy and critical thinking skills through visual literacy and simultaneously assisting them in enriching their social and cultural capital.

In fact, CALTA21 offered a free webinar in June 2014 to discuss these very ideas: Museums and Institutions of Higher Education Unite to Empower Adult English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL)

While this webinar focuses primarily on advanced adult language learners, all museums and cultural sites can work to make their programs more accessible and welcoming to all English Language Learners. This can work to foster inclusion as well as lifelong engagement with museums and community.

VTS can serve as an effective method for ELL students and families by:

  • Encouraging a fluency of language
  • Validation of experience and past knowledge
  • Adopting an appreciation of multiple viewpoints
  • Being a cathartic experience for visitors
  • Combining visual literacy and literacy based activities

CALTA21’s website has a wealth of information, including a multi-week guided curriculum and a list of museums nationwide that provide free admission. They encourage any museum or cultural institution to look into their program. Check it out!


Find more information about CALTA21 here:

Transmitting on All Frequencies

Whether it’s a babel fish, telepathic field, protocol droid, or universal translator, science fiction is full of gadgets that break down the language barriers between characters, allowing everyone to comfortably express themselves and share knowledge with one another.

Photo of a Universal Translator device from Star Trek

Photo from the Star Trek Experience by Cromely, cropped.

We may not yet have our jetpacks, but the future is rapidly approaching when it comes to universal translation. Just this year, Microsoft demoed realtime automatic translation with Skype Translator. A tiny, cloud-based, Bluetooth translation gadget called SIGMO reached 1,660% of its fundraising goal on IndieGoGo. Spoken-language translation apps are even available on mobile devices. Options for text-based translation have been around for years. But where do museums fall on this tech wave?

Photo of a man and a woman having a conversation using a small device.

From the SIGMO press kit.

In many ways, major museums, with their diverse audiences and respected, innovative brands, would be ideal spaces to pilot technologies at the forefront of the translation revolution. However, many still use prerecorded tours in a few set languages or multilingual brochures. In the museum world, the private sector is leading the way. In Canada, Interpretour provides an app-based exhibit experience that is automatically translatable into 24 languages. Periplus is an audio guide development tool that generates text-to-speech narration and is exploring auto-translation options.

The revolution is already in progress on the web. Google Translate is the tool of choice for shifting to preferred languages on the Edinburgh Museums & Galleries’ website, and tech giants Google and Microsoft also offer automatic translation through browsers and third-party sites like Facebook.


A wider range of language options would engage more visitors from multilingual homes as well as from around the world, but automatic translation can miss nuances in language that human translators intuit. What do you think: should museums partner with tech companies to pilot automatic translation software, or should they stick with traditional methods?

Museums and English Language Learners

This portion explores the learning opportunities for new immigrants and/or English Language Learners. We will be considering several questions:

How is the museum community interacting with this group?

What is the most effective way to encourage growth and comfort in their new setting?

What can museums do to foster a sense of community for recent immigrants?

According to the 2012 ACS (American Community Survey), the U.S. immigrant population hovered around 40.8 million, about thirteen percent of the total U.S. population. Since then, the number of immigrants has only increased. Many of these individuals could be classified as English Language Learners, or ELLs.

The definition of an English Language Learner varies across the nation, and includes both children and adults. Typically, it is a student who is unable to communicate or learn fluently in English, who often comes from a non-English speaking home, and who often requires specialized English language instruction. This definition comes from the Greater Schools Partnership, who advocates for education reform.

So how can museums help? This article serves as a good introduction to the topic:

Julia Carr, a British museum educator, advocates for the museum’s effect on students of the English language, known as English as a Second Language (ESOL) students. Based on her interviews of ESOL tutors and museum educators, three main themes emerge:


  • Museum trips give learners self-confidence and connect them to where they live.


She says, “Integration into society depends on having that cultural capital, that understanding. Using a constructivist definition of learning — a process of active engagement with experience — I found that ESOL learners do accrue cultural capital when interacting with the material culture of their host country. How? They use their personal memories, knowledge and experience to interpret the objects they come across”.


  • Handling museum objects is a great conversation starter.


As museum educators, we know this to be true- objects can generate amazing and layered conversation. However, one docent noticed that, ‘people so want to talk about [the object] that they will fight through the language barrier to express an opinion’.


  • Museum visits help learners see the connections between cultures


Carr concludes by acknowledging that learners can reaffirm their own sense of identity, rather than being overwhelmed by their lack of English. By encouraging personal connections and the attainment of cultural capital, museums can occupy a unique space in helping English Language Learners feel more comfortable in their new home.

How can museums best reach this growing potential audience?