Access through Language

Thursday 5 July 2018, British Museum.

‘Access through Language’  explored how museums provide access to museum collections through the languages they use to engage visitors. Access through language takes us beyond the realms of spoken and written language to gesture, movement, intention and multi-sensory experiences.

Key themes included: language of diversity, access and inclusion; language of interpretation;  language of community.

Holly’s Blog: The Multilingual Museum

MAP meeting “Access Through Language”, 10 July 2018, British Museum

“A museum of the world, for the world, MUST represent the world.”  This powerful statement from Freddie Matthews, Head of Adult Programmes at the British Museum, opened the MAP meeting on “Access Through Language”.  But how do we represent? According to the BBC, Britain has the largest number of community languages in Europe, with 300 being identified in London schools alone. This is before we discuss the expansion of “language” to include British Sign Language (BSL), Braille, regional, community and generational dialects, and the gulf between academic jargon and accessible expression. Looking at the museums sector from the outside, it is generally perceived that museums speak with one voice in the “language” of a homogenous people, be it a national community, a community of shared identity, or the concept of a universal “expert”.  This event looked at the ways in which this perception is false, the ways in which it is true, and what it means to be a truly multilingual museum.

The meeting opened with Liz Ellis, (Policy Advisor Communities and Diversity, HLF), speaking about the importance of access. “Unequal access damages all of us”, cutting swathes of the population off from learning and enjoyment and cutting ourselves off from countless ideas and experiences. Liz outlined some great case studies that emphasised the breadth that access programmes encompass. A real highlight was a project by Intoart pairing artist mentors and mentees with learning disabilities and creating a book of their work. A crucial message to take from this was the importance of making programmes and resources produced for outreach as high quality as any others: these audiences are not small, not added extras; we need to demonstrate that we value them.

Fired up to talk access and inclusion we then got a chance to explore the British Museum and its language work with its excellent team of freelancers. Liz Porter and Janet Solomon gave a touch-based tour of the sculpture gallery; Laila Sumpton used haikus to explore the Africa Galleries; Rebecca Mileham, Julian Walker and Deanne Naula reflected on the barriers we create in text and interpretation; Andrew David and Sophie Dave looked at the BM’s script history collections and how ancient languages make a compelling topic for ESOL groups; Jo-Anne Sunderland-Bowe put a new spin on the museum’s Rodin exhibition with a  workshop on dance and body language; and Katharine Hoare led a playful session on creating multi-sensory routes into collections. These workshops showcased a vast variety of ways we can communicate if we break away from traditional methods, shining a light on the breadth of what counts as language. This was really motivating, you don’t need to speak multiple languages or invest in expensive projects to surmount linguistic barriers. The workshops let us get hands-on and have some fun. Communication done well is electric and museums constructed well can be lightning rods – it’s always good to be reminded of that!

With our brains buzzing we went into the Project Slam, in which six speakers gave short talks about their access through language work. It started with Liz Porter asking: how do we talk about access? How do we use terminology like “equality”, “diversity”, “inclusion”, “communication”? How many ways are there to express yourself? She invited us to think critically about the way we frame the conversation. She in particular led the charge for representation in the workforce. Museum collections “represent the world”, we want our audiences to do so too, we tend to think of our staff last. But it is vital that audiences see themselves mirrored in the human side of the museum, not just the display cases, if they are to feel really included and have their voices championed.

Ellen Adams followed this with the Museum Access Network for Sensory Impairments, discussing BSL and Audio-Description (AD) in museums. Continuing the theme of representation, she emphasised that we can’t keep these versions of our text behind the desk or in closed tours. Having accessible interpretation only available on special request implies that those looking for it are only welcome on special occasions. What’s more, if we integrate BSL, AD, etc. into the galleries then the benefit can ripple out, raising awareness of and normalising these languages. Being Deaf isn’t a problem, lack of awareness of Deafness is. (For more theory on this idea, have a look at the development from the medical model of disability, which views disability as an individual problem to be treated, to the social model, which views disability as an individual difference that society disempowers).

This led smoothly into Becki Morris’ talk on the Disability Cooperative Network, again calling for greater support for a diverse workforce. She pointed out that museum workers tend to stay in the sector for a long career and are bound at some point to need physical, sensory or neurological support, even if they didn’t arrive with that need.  A sector prepared for this doesn’t only open to a more diverse (and so more effective) workforce, it also keeps its existing talent from moving away. Becki also spoke about demystifying the museum. Many people have interest or talent in heritage and never find out because text is such a huge barrier. Neurodiverse interpretation opens the museum for those with dyslexia, dyspraxia, and other neurological differences. It also engages anyone who simply doesn’t learn through reading and pushes museums to resist the temptation to write academic panels that throw up barriers for the majority of visitors. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the famous Einstein quote, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Museums have too long been mystifying places, places that have made most of us feel like a tree-climbing fish at some point or another. Neurodiversity is not just a term for the disability conversation, it is imperative that we stop leaning on heavy text while it holds us back from encouraging strong swimmers.

Next up we shifted focus to community engagement with Jenny Siung of the Chester Beatty Library. She talked about delivering community ambassador tours in different languages, but also reminded us that it’s OK to review your methods if something isn’t taking off. Though many of the tours were well-attended, the Library found that not all communication had to be this in-depth. Social media became equally useful in breaking through language barriers, with posts and videos in different languages allowing the same informal engagement that English-speakers experience. Foreign language projects can be intimidating for the significant knowledge and resources attached to them. Jenny challenged this with bitesize, approachable communication.

Jatinder Kailey followed this, talking about community access partnerships in Historic Royal Palaces. She advocated putting control into the hands of audiences, having them lead the creation of their own resources. No amount of consultation can as effectively ensure that resources meet your audience’s needs! But she also emphasised that this doesn’t mean turning away from our collections and narratives. There is always a relatable story or an interesting perspective to find. In HRP’s case, it was comparing King George I to ESOL groups: he too travelled from another country to make his home in the UK and had to learn English as he adapted. This not only provided an enjoyable link, but was a pleasant reminder that there is probably nothing more British than migration.

Finally in the Project Slam was Dom Sergi on working with ESOL in the Horniman Museum. His key message was to trust our audiences. The discourse of sharing power in cultural institutions frequently includes what it takes for us as experts and educators to give up the reins, often hinting at angst over “toning down for the uninitiated”. Dom stressed that we should have faith in the intelligence of participants. The Horniman’s question-led approach developed deep and complex conversations. Out of it grew volunteering and employment opportunities, taking the museum forward professionally.

The day ended with group discussions sharing our own work. This kind of activity is at the heart of MAP and with such inspiring speakers and workshops it was a lively atmosphere. I came into this event asking if it was true that museums speak with a single voice in a single language. Listening to the MAP network I would say it is not, but we also need to keep working to be truly multilingual. From partnerships to co-production, from giving access to the outside world to cultivating a workforce that reflects it; once these steps have been taken there’s no going back to piecemeal tokenism.

I’ll sign off with the two questions Liz Ellis asked us to consider: What does access mean to you? And how can you improve your practice in the next two weeks? We at MAP hope this event inspired you to start taking those steps, bearing in mind the huge scope of communication in our world. In Liz Porter’s words, “language affects our lived experience, our learned experience”. There is no such thing as “just words” and words are far from the end of language.

Holly Bee, MAP volunteer and GEM education officer

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