Building a Multilingual Museum: Art, Language Learning, and Meaningful Experiences

Museums are multifaceted learning spaces, encouraging civic engagement, education, and changes in society. These are places to learn and grow as creative human beings trying to find our place in the world. As homes to artifacts as well as living art reflecting society and culture, it makes sense that museums should attract people from all backgrounds and walks of life. However, despite attracting people from various cultures, many of these institutions still struggle to include people from different linguistic backgrounds in their programs, limiting the experience to a select group.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has recognized the importance of linguistic diversity and provided employees and volunteers with Diáfano Learning language classes. When docents, museum educators, and even gift shop managers are able to communicate in languages such as Spanish, French, Italian, and German, it can make a world of difference in the experience visitors have at the Met. And while it may seem that the Met is in the unique position to provide this training to their employees, the model of learning used can be replicated at any museum or cultural institution—no matter how large or small!

The world has become increasingly diverse and more accepting of other cultures. As awareness and acceptance grow regarding the diversity of our society, creating a more inclusive environment for a multilingual audience has become more salient for museums. Investing in a multilingual mode of education can open up more opportunities and create a better environment of societal integration and inclusion.

To ensure that your museum offers an unparalleled experience for visitors and staff, consider a language program.

Art and language are intertwine

Old as this adage may be, it still rings true in the modern world: a picture paints a thousand words. When it comes to language learning, the arts come to the rescue. A photograph, song, dance, and even drama can communicate messages across language barriers, and at the same time, support learning in various ways.

When it comes to literacy skills, for instance, a person exposed to art learns better than those who don’t. A study by the Dana Foundation found that arts training and improved cognitive skills were linked. Art is able to improve critical, practical, and creative skills, meaning individuals who engage in it are able to understand and build processes better. Ashford University put it aptly—each time we stop to admire a piece of art, our brain takes in the visual information and interprets it in a way that we understand. Shapes, colours, textures, sounds, and more can evoke emotion in us through a process called embodied cognition. The way our brains react to art is, in a way, an exercise that develops our cognitive function.

Language is the way we convey messages that result from cognition. It’s also how we acquire the knowledge and understanding that we then use for the cognitive process. In a museum, linguistic skills are particularly beneficial for one simple reason—art is a language in itself. When capable staff are able to communicate with visitors in their primary language, messages are conveyed much more effectively and you fulfill what museums have been designed for—learning, teaching, and breaking barriers.

Launching a multilingual museum through language programs

The question now stands—how do you create a multilingual museum? All major museums provide translations in their facilities, complete with guides and instructions. Shouldn’t this be enough? Well, this is a must, but it’s certainly not enough. Language is about communication, interaction, and building relationships. That’s not something your visitors could get through a machine or AI.

Your staff and volunteers need to be trained, especially those who work in Education, Visitor Services, Exhibitions, Communications, and Special Events. Staff in Curatorial will also benefit from training. This strategy alone earns you a competitive advantage over other art institutions.

Attract and build relationships with visitors from all over the world

Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” Anyone who has ever visited a country where the native language isn’t one they speak fluently knows this to be true. Even if you don’t speak that country’s language well, the natives respect you for your efforts in learning it. When I lived in Japan, for example, my Japanese was elementary, but everytime I used it I was applauded (sometimes literally). People are truly touched when you speak not your language but theirs.

By learning a new language, staff and volunteers will be able to interact with visitors from all over the world. Beyond that, they are showing that they can go the extra mile to show reverence to a culture. The Marian Goodman Art Gallery—an institution built to introduce European artists to American audiences—recognized this. They partnered with Diáfano Learning to offer Spanish language classes to all visitors for an entire month. Art21 highlighted the program and how Gabriel Orozco and our programming brought together journalists, curators, artists, and students to tie language, art, and culture.

A multilingual team will allow your institution to facilitate and better express what it means to be a part of the museum, which is essentially to connect people with cultures past and present, all strung together in a connection that language barriers cannot break.

Build camaraderie among employees and volunteers

A language program will also help build strong camaraderie among your employees, as the language programs will compel them to spend more time together focused on something other than work. In 2013, a study was conducted on effective team building in the workplace. Results indicated that there were eight key items that facilitated effective team development: clear goals; decision-making authority; accountability and responsibility; effective leadership; training and development; provision of resources; organizational support; and rewards for team success. The fact that all of these items can be integrated into language learning classes only goes to show that language learning may very well be the perfect team building activity!

A team can be defined as a group of people who share one common goal. The employees of a museum hold different roles and serve different purposes. When everyone engages in language learning, however, there is only one: to learn how to communicate effectively in a new language. That common understanding along with the group cohesiveness that comes out of learning a new skill alongside one another makes the activity a great way to build camaraderie among employees and volunteers.

Add a volunteer and employee perk

Language learning can be a wonderful way to incentivize and award employees. In doing so, you reduce employee turnover, increase productivity, and attract new volunteers who love the idea of learning and serving their communities through art at the same time.

Today’s workforce places an emphasis on learning and development. In fact, in LinkedIn’s 2020 Workplace Learning Report, 94 percent of employees report that they would stay with a company longer if there was a greater emphasis put on learning. Investing in your team means improving engagement and upskilling your workforce. In a generation where learning has never been so important, language learning is the perfect way to show your team that you want them to grow.

Create meaningful and memorable museum experiences

Implementing a new language program does not have to be overwhelming. In fact, all you need is a reliable partner like Diáfano Learning who can plan and organize sessions, ensuring your staff members and volunteers can learn in the most effective way possible. Even today, when we are encouraged to maintain social distance and limit trips to the outdoors, language learning is possible online.

Language classes are a fun way to learn a new skill as a team and work towards the goal of creating meaningful and long-lasting experiences for visitors of different cultural backgrounds. Whether your team takes Spanish, French, Italian, German, or any of the other languages we offer, we’re happy to help you reach that goal.

For the best language provider in the USA, Diáfano Learning is the place to call. We offer unparalleled language programs for various institutions, including museums. We seek to improve cultures through fun and innovative foreign language courses. Allow your museum to create meaningful and memorable learning experiences in a new language—reach out to us today!

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Irma Cedeno

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Irma is a trained linguist, native Spanish speaker, and teacher. She is the founder and CEO of Diáfano.

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