January • 6 • 2021
We Need Greater Inclusion of Languages in Our Art Museums
Exterior of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a positive example of an art museum that offers brochures in multiple languages. Photo by jeffamadi on Pixabay.
The signs have become clear to many that art museums need improvement to achieve their mission of educating communities of diverse learners. In my frequent visits to these places before the pandemic, I noticed a general lack of learning materials meant to engage with minority groups and non-native English speakers. Although major art museums are almost exclusively located in multicultural urban centers, these spaces of learning have been slow in remodeling their galleries to be more welcoming to their population of diverse learners. For instance, too few museums make it a priority to create materials and messaging on the basic information about the institution in languages other than English. As important places for cultural exchange and appreciation, the lack of effort in installing plaques and wall texts in different languages is quite shocking. While major improvements have occurred more recently in making museums more welcoming to those with disabilities, efforts to motivate more non-English speaking groups to visit outside of school field trips has not. After visiting the Art Institute of Chicago during the winter of 2019/2020, my concern over the lack of educational aides to encourage minority and non-English learners to visit only grew.
Famous for its Impressionist collection, the educational department at the Institute has, in my opinion, not taken full advantage of the objects residing in their collection to create a viewing experience that is accessible to all learners. These pieces, many of which were created as a reaction to the disorienting urbanization and industrialization of France during the second half of the nineteenth century, have much to offer today’s non-English speakers. For instance, many of these works depict the ways in which people responded to their environments being transformed from rural to urban, a trend that has only accelerated in recent years. Although created over a hundred years ago, anyone who has struggled to make new cities feel like their home can find these works to be relatable.
By offering more expansive commentaries from varying points of view, articulated in multiple languages, the educational department at the Institute could create additional points of engagement and learning for their very diverse visitor clientele. Without these updated materials, many visitors, including minorities and those living with disabilities, may feel unable to engage with these pieces or many feel unwelcome while at the museum in general.
During this extended period of shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum industry has had time to evaluate its progress toward fulfilling its existential mission, examine its leadership structures, and re-tool its approach as we wait for museums to reopen safely and responsibly. To keep museums relevant for the vast majority of the citizens that live near them, I believe now is the time to execute changes, or face the consequences of museum audiences diminishing to a point where only upper class individuals continue to be comfortable visiting. These institutions have played an important role as cultural centers for hundreds of years. As a multicultural nation, art museums in urban centers of the United States need to update their approach when sharing their mission, vision, and objective statements found in their exhibition halls. Minority groups who live adjacent to these institutions must be catered to if these places hope to survive. Educational departments need to send a welcoming message to all learners that they are serious in their mission to educate all who visit and explore their galleries by installing texts for non-English readers on the walls.
When exploring a museum, there should be as many educational materials in as many languages as possible. To give credit to the institutions found in America’s major cities, many do offer brochures in multiple dialects informing guests about the pieces found in their galleries and have guides available for those living with visual and auditory disabilities. Furthermore, they also offer docents trained in American Sign Language (ASL) as well as other languages to give tours if requested in advance. The Getty Foundation in Los Angeles, the Denver Art Museum in Colorado, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta all offer these services at no additional cost. More action is needed, but these are steps in the right direction. When entering any gallery, any text that introduces or explains an art movement should be written in a handful of the most spoken languages found in the area the museum occupies. The learning experience offered by art institutions must be made more accessible, as people who visit these centers are engaging in an interactive learning activity. All visitors to these centers need to be on the same playing field if they are to learn alongside their English-speaking peers. While it might seem like a monumental task to provide equal access to non-English speakers, it does not need to be.
The planning and execution phases involved in creating and updating a gallery normally entail the collaboration of multiple departments in figuring out the layout and educational talking points they want guests to walk away with depending on the institution and exhibitions. This process necessarily must include multilingual/multicultural colleagues to introduce materials from experts who can speak to the cultural contexts of the objects on display or deliver context on what these societies are or were like when these objects were created. Additionally, galleries could be getting more from their multilingual colleagues by asking them to assist, if able to, in developing foreign language placards for every exhibition space where English placards accompany works of art. Guests who visit art museums want to feel welcome; they want to learn about art and different cultures at the same pace as their English-speaking counterparts and they want to feel that they belong in these centers of art appreciation and learning.
With many museums still waiting to reopen, their boards of trustees and COO’s should be doing all they can to ensure that people are lined up to revisit and feel fully welcomed in their exhibition spaces the moment they reopen. In presenting texts in languages other than English, the administrators responsible for running these institutions could send a positive message to the communities outside their doors that they welcome all learners. In doing so, it would help museums to survive the obstacles imposed by the global pandemic.
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As an MA graduate from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), art history and museum studies are a personal passion for Ethan Krenzer. While he is training to become an expert on the artistic period of the northern European Renaissance and the Early Modern Era, Krenzer has familiarized himself with eras of art creation from Neolithic to Contemporary. In having a rare genetic recessive condition, he deconstructs objects using his emotional knowledge and personal experiences in combination with scholarly sources. Krenzer hopes to one day be an educator or curator at an art museum that strives to generate learning materials for the diverse learners found in the United States.