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.

BUT—

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?

and

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.

 

 

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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.

Capture

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?