100 Languages of Visitors

I said “Do you speak-a my language?” / He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich — Land Down Under, Men at Work

When I worked in a museum in multicultural Birmingham (UK), myself and the other staff would sometimes worry about whether or not we should provide any of the museum text or leaflets in additional languages other than English. Since starting my PhD I’ve gone back to thinking about the languages used in museums, but my concept of language has changed somewhat.

My research in part draws on the Reggio Emilia approach. For those of you not familiar with early childhood education (probably the majority of you), this is a progressive preschool education system from northern Italy, much beloved of and envied by nursery teachers everywhere. One of the concepts that Reggio educators like to use is that of the 100 languages of children. They don’t mean language in the sense of English, French or Mandarin, but rather any means by which children take in information about the world, and then express their understanding to other people.

So a language in this sense could be painting, play-doh modelling, role-play, music and so on, as well as speaking with words. The “100” bit isn’t meant literally, but is a poetic way of saying “lots”. And the key point in highlighting different activities as languages is to draw our attention to the fact that we should actively try to listen to and understand what the children are telling us.

I have wondered for a while whether this concept might be useful to our understanding of museums, a sort of 100 languages of visitors. As I see it, the concept could be applied to museums from two perspective — firstly the languages through which museums speak to visitors, and secondly the languages through which visitors speak back to museums.

Most curators would, I’m sure, be unperturbed by the idea that images as well as text could be seen as a language through which the museum could speak to visitors. However, using the concept of “100 languages” we can see any means by which visitors read a message from the museum as being a language. So, for example, the architecture, colour scheme, lighting, lift, café, shop, toilets, attitudes of staff, children’s activities etc., could all be means by which visitors read messages, intended or unintended, from the museum. These messages could be: this place is for people like you, we don’t care about visitor’s comfort, you might get lost here, we don’t like children, your health is important to us, we think you have lots of money, and that’s just for starters.

Likewise, most museums give visitors at least some opportunity to speak back to them, for example through visitor books or comment cards. They might even, if they are especially enthusiastic or have a funder on their back, carry out questionnaires or focus groups. But visitors are speaking to the museum all the time, again, through a variety of languages. These could include the amount of time spent in exhibitions, facial expressions, numbers of photographs taken (and shared online), amount of money spent in the shop or café, levels of happy chatter — you get the idea. Observing visitor behaviour in all areas of the museum can give staff an incredible opportunity to listen to the views of visitors, whether they are spoken out loud or not (as most front-of-house staff are well aware).

From both sides, the language used and the message conveyed could be either intentional or unintentional. Here’s an example. Imagine a museum that houses a recreated slum street, which, to create an “authentic” atmosphere, includes artificial smells of rotten fish, sewers and rancid beer. The museum believes that the message conveyed by the smells is, “slums smelled bad.” However, the smells are so bad that visitors rush through the street, without having the time to look at the other historical details or to read the text panels. Their hands cover their mouths as they speed, gagging and retching, on to the next area. Were the museum to listen to this behavioural message from the visitors, they might understand it to mean, “this area smells so bad that we can’t stay here, regardless of how interesting it is.” And for the visitors, the message from the museum, via the language of smell, seems to be, “we don’t care about your comfort or learning, as long as we are historically accurate”.

It’s an interesting exercise to start seeing museums and their visitors in this light. Almost every single aspect of the museum can be seen as conveying different messages. Once we start looking at museums in this way, we can start critiquing the degree to which different elements of the museum support or contradict each other; the messages that the museum is and isn’t aware of; the visitor languages that the museum does and doesn’t listen to; and the variety of ways in which different visitors might read the same message.

In recent years I’ve heard lots of people high up in the museum world use words like “conversation””," “dialogue” and even “talk to”, when  discussing their relationship with visitors. These speeches often come across as well-meaning, but never quite as inclusive as they would like to be, maybe referring only to small groups of visitors, or to projects that extend only for a few weeks or months. But I wonder whether, by using this incredibly broad concept of 100 languages, we could actually begin to unpick the ways in which museums speak and listen to all of their visitors, every opening hour of every opening day.

See also