Understanding and Implementing a Multilingual Approach to the Museum Experience

The Getty Center Lobby

The Getty Center Lobby

When you enter the main lobby at The Getty Center in Los Angeles, you are met with a circular desk filled with informational brochures in over 10 different languages. For an institution in a tourist hub with a large, unchanging permanent collection and vast resources, this is an investment well-spent. But how can smaller institutions accommodate for people who speak and read in different languages?


*For the purpose of this article, I’m going to write as if we are in a majority English-speaking location.



Why be Multilingual at your Museum?

No matter if a visitor is fluent in English, a Museum experience that includes their native language can be a welcoming act. We want visitors to feel represented and at ease in our spaces. Anyone can feel uncomfortable and overwhelmed in Museum spaces, no matter the language. Making the effort to extend a metaphorical hand across languages can be a big step in building trust and good will.


There’s also a huge practical use for providing information in different languages. If a space has specific instructions – especially for safety reasons – then it’s in everyone’s best interest that those instructions be made as clearly as possible. 


If sharing information and fostering learning is in your mission, then finding the best ways for visitors to engage should be a priority. I am not arguing for an exact translation for every word in your messaging; however, a strategic inclusion of other languages is a relatively simply step to accommodate for a larger pool of visitors.


What Being Multilingual Looks Like

I am also not arguing an institution include as many languages as possible. The Getty can accommodate to so many languages because they have the resources and, more importantly, visitors coming from all over the world.


Again, be intentional and specific with what would provide the most use. A map or directional guide of a permanent space is a great place to start. Would it be useful to have a translated version of this guide available for visitors if they ask? Or are there simple ways to include key words in other languages in the guide already in use?


How do you know what language/s to include? The best place to start is to look at your community. Does your area have a large Hispanic population? Consider ways to incorporate Spanish into messaging or signage.


If you do get tourists to your city, consider starting with major international languages. Indo-European languages like French or Spanish have a far reach and may be more familiar for your visitors than English.


How to Implement Multilingual Tools

Of course, it’s always best to have a native speaker or someone fluent in a language to handle your translations. Please don’t ever just Google Translate! Be open to different interpretations. If you are translating an exhibition brochure, let your expert dictate phrasing and terms that best suit the intended audience instead of creating a straight translation.


If a local expert is not available to you, do a little research. Finding an online copy writer and editor is a good investment if this is truly something you want to be successful. There are many translating Apps and programs available that may also suit your needs, but always work with people when you can. They will be able to anticipate nuances in translations that a computer may miss.



How to Be Multilingual Without Words

Utilize symbols and other visual elements to communicate. There are many symbols that have become universal for communicating across cultures and languages. Take advantage of these indicators – especially for directional signage in your space. 


Being intentional in your marketing design can also be a useful tool here. Instead of listing an exhibition in simple type, create a visual wordmark or logo that can be identifiable to someone even if they can’t read the words.


Being a Multilingual Museum

It can be as simple as an extra word on a directional sign or as in depth as providing translations for your messaging. Implementing a multilingual approach can be an easy step to connect with visitors and jump-start their experience in your space.