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Museums introduce Multi-Lingual Wall Labels

Several of the museums and galleries in Minnesota’s two major cities – Saint Paul and Minneapolis – have decided reject using just one language on their wall labels. The move is a reflection of the greater cultural diversity of the Twin Cities. According to data that was gathered by the state of Minnesota in 2017, the number of school-age children and adults who speak something other than English at home as their first language has all but doubled over the course of the last ten years. The decision by the cities’ museums to make their wall labels reflect this demographic change has been welcomed by some of the communities concerned.

The Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Leadership

Although there are a number of cultural institutions in the Twin Cities that have adopted the scheme, it is the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s (MIA) which has been in the vanguard. According to the gallery’s deputy director, Matthew Welch, the hope is that the change will send a message of greater inclusivity for visitors. Rather than assuming English is the native language of the institute’s attendees, the idea is that anyone who wants to know more about a work of art they are looking at will be able to gain information in a language they are more familiar with. “By translating something,” Juline Chevalier said, “you are opening it up to somebody else.”

Chevalier, who is the head of interpretation and participatory experiences at MIA, had previously been involved with an exhibition in 2019 that made extensive use of translation. ‘Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists’ was a show that made extensive use of living artists. It featured art from about 50 different Native American tribes and that meant that 60 languages were covered by its extensive remit. As a result, MIA provided translation services to each of the artists taking part in the exhibition, making sure that their indigenous language was part of the show even if the artist concerned was not conversant in it themselves. The decision to honour native languages during that show was especially important given that MIA stands on land that was formerly part of the Dakota homelands, a native American group who had their indigenous language discouraged and even outlawed in the past.

The Walker Art Center

Another of the big institutions in the Twin Cities is the Walker Art Center. This gallery staged a show in 2017 that was devoted to Cuban art. Therole of translation was a big theme of that event, too. Not only were wall label translations offered in Spanish and English for the exhibition but careful attention was given to the use of Cuban terms that are not widely spoken in the wider Spanish-speaking communities of the Americas. As a result of the Walker Gallery’s work, Nisa Mackie, the director of education and public programmes at the gallery, said that she had seen a huge rise in Latino visitors coming to the museum.

Walker Art Center

That said, not all shows have been given the same treatment. When the Mexican conceptual artist, Mario García Torres, held his first US solo exhibition at the Walker in 2018, for example, only English wall labels were used. Mackie explained that this was at the artist’s insistence rather than a matter of gallery policy. Back in 2017, Nairy Baghramian, an Iranian visual artist, also featured in a solo exhibition at the gallery. The Berlin-based artist insisted that her show, ‘Déformation Professionnelle’, would feature no wall labels whatsoever. Instead, an interpretive booklet was produced for attendees to refer to.

The Future of Wall Labels

Although both institutions have undoubtedly put a great deal of effort into their wall labels to make them more accessible to visitors, both Chevalier and Mackie have acknowledged that their impact needs further assessment. For her part, Chevalier said that the numbers of MIA’s Spanish-speaking attendees were relatively small. This came to light during a hit exhibition, ‘Guillermo del Toro: At Home With Monsters’. The wall labels for this show were translated from English into Spanish and the gallery conducted its own study to see how many visitors actually spoke these languages. She said that they discovered that Spanish speakers only made up about five per cent of visitors but she defended the decision anyway stating that she was pleased they had made the effort.

Equally, Mackie surveyed a hundred visitors to the Walker Art Center during an exhibition staged there in 2020. She found that fewer than half of the attendees to it bothered to read the wall labels at all, regardless of the languages they were available in. As such, whether this work with providing multi-lingual wall labels will continue will probably come down to whether or not they promote greater visitor engagement.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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