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Museum Multilingualism: Bringing Mobile Technology to the Table

Last time we talked about the need for museums to cater to their multilingual visitors. Whether they are from the surrounding community or they arrive from around the globe while on holiday, these multilingual visitors represent a vital portion of the modern museum-going population.
We also zoomed in on Queens Museum, whose ‘New New Yorkers’ program targets local immigrants with free courses offered in several languages. We also hinted at how museums might be engaging visitors through technology—chiefly via mobile.

This time, we will look at an entirely different approach to multilingualism, one that targets a completely different population and in a completely different way.

The Most Common Reason for Museum Multilingualism

When museums around the globe were surveyed about their motivation for multilingual offerings, the most common reason was to make their exhibits and programs accessible to a wider range of audiences. Our Queens Museum example from last time demonstrates a less-common reason for multilingualism: outreach to an under-served audience.
But what about those museums who simply want to satisfy a broader audience of museum-goers? As you might guess, tourism is a key factor for these museums and as such, many have institutional mandates that drive their multilingual efforts.

Several museums are leading the way on this front with their well-developed Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) programs. As we hinted at last time, mobile technology may be the key for museums whose inclinations lean toward making their exhibitions and programmes available to a more linguistically diverse array of visitors.

Museums Used to Hate Mobile Phones

It is interesting to note that in the survey mentioned just above, museums did not report using smartphone technology in their multilingual interpretation strategies. The survey was given back in 2009, which may go a long way toward explaining why.
Another reason may be the tenuous relationship that museums have had with the mobile phone. Until recently, when supportive technologies like ubiquitous Wi-Fi and workable apps have emerged, the mobile phone was viewed by many museums as a nuisance rather than a valuable tool:

• Mobile phones can be disruptive both the two visitor’s museum experience and to other visitors.
• Mobile phone cameras present a danger to the artwork.


Yes, it is True: Mobile-Friendly Museums!

As a result of all that, it has been common for museums to restrict the use of mobile. Audio tours are still commonly offered via clunky museum-owned devices.
Even when museums began offering apps, people tended not to use them. Reasons range from awareness and compatibility to user capability to user interest and impact.
But a lot has happened in mobile technology since then. As a result, most people are awakened to the possibilities available to them through mobile apps. That simple fact alone eliminates one of the major hurdles for museums who want to promote multilingualism through BYOD programs awareness.

One museum whose decision makers are jumping on these new opportunities is Amsterdam Museum. Their Amsterdam DNA exhibit makes use of QR codes in order to offer interpretive information to a multilingual audience. As you will see, the codes eliminate many of the other hurdles to BYOD adoption mentioned above.

Amsterdam Museum’s QR Codes for Multilingual Visitors

Amsterdam DNA is a shining example of mobile technology being put to good use to engage multilingual visitors. Those visitors end up making use of the exhibit’s BYOD program in far greater proportions than the Dutch-and English-speaking visitors.
The reason is simply that the codes offer them information in their own language.
It works like this. Visitors use their own smartphones to scan QR codes placed in the exhibits. The codes are tagged with several languages so visitors can view exhibit-specific movies or hear related information in their own language. This is in addition to providing labelling and descriptions in both Dutch and English.

Increased Engagement for Museums

Everyone agrees that museums do a better job of fulfilling their mission when they engage a wider audience. That makes the 21st century an exciting time to be involved with a museum, as the technology is finally catching up.
It means that a multilingual audience can more fully enjoy what museums have to offer… in their own language. It is a deeper experience that makes for richer engagement. Isn’t that what we are all after? Thanks to changing technologies and changing attitudes towards mobile in museums, we can start to say goodbye to those clunky rental audio devices and say hello to language-specific apps that bring exhibits alive… for everyone.



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