Though the word “accessibility” has often been equated with giving access to those with disabilities, it can also mean something broader. Accessibility means looking at everything we create through the lens of inclusivity and diversity and asking questions not just about access but equal access. Does the Deaf or Hard of Hearing community have access to everything you have to offer? Will those whose native language is not English feel welcome at your institution? What communities have you been, perhaps unknowingly, excluding?
This is what I call cultural and linguistic accessibility. Cultural accessibility involves giving access and representation to communities that have been historically underrepresented in your institution. An often-overlooked extension of this is linguistic accessibility—also known as “language equity.” The definition of language equity is threefold:
- Creating opportunities for people whose native language is not English to feel welcomed at your museum and able to join its community.
- Extending opportunities for staff members to partake in multiple languages.
- Taking the active position that every language is a window into a culture and therefore worth preserving.
When linguistic accessibility techniques are used effectively, the results can be truly remarkable. Some museums have already actively worked towards creating change in that direction. Here are four strategies that pioneering institutions are currently using to embrace linguistic accessibility in 2023, and ways in which you can apply them to your organization.
1. Identify a Second Language and Become a Bilingual Museum
All organizations in the US speak at least two languages. The first is English—the lingua franca of business—and the others are those spoken by your staff and the community where you’re located. (If you don’t know what those languages are, quick in-person and online surveys of staff and visitors can give you much-needed data in a short period of time.) For most museums, at least one of these second languages is likely to be Spanish. A little-known fact is that the United States has more Spanish speakers than Spain, with the second-most of any country behind Mexico. Think about that—can a shift in your practices tap into that huge market?Skip over related stories to continue reading article
Once you know what that second language is, you can begin taking steps toward becoming a bilingual museum, as the Getty Museum has done. “Over the last two to three years, we’ve been really looking at how we offer programs to our staff and visitors that meet certain DEAI criteria,” says John Giurini, the museum’s Assistant Director for Public Affairs. “One of those criteria is being more bilingual, particularly given that we are in Los Angeles, where a large percentage of the population is Spanish-speaking. We felt it was an important welcoming message for visitors to know that we offer programs in two languages, both English and Spanish.”
For the Getty, becoming a bilingual museum has been more than a one-step process. Giurni says the first step was looking at the museum’s exhibitions, where staff have spent the past two years testing different approaches to offering bilingual text, with the goal to make all exhibitions bilingual by the fall of 2023. The second step has been an analysis of the museum’s on-site signage and what it will take to make it fully bilingual in the future. The final element has been helping staff increase their bilingual speaking abilities. The Getty will soon offer Spanish language classes for staff, both those who are learning from the very beginning and those who are already knowledgeable but want to learn how to speak more fluently about art.
Other museums working to become bilingual include the Guggenheim, whose international presence in New York, Bilbao, Venice, and Abu Dhabi requires initiatives to overcome language and cultural barriers across the institution, according to Ty Woodfolk, the museum’s Deputy Director and Chief Culture and Inclusion Officer. In addition to building this internal communication, the Guggenheim is also focused on building relationships with its diverse visitors, a majority of whom are international. “[We want to make sure] they don’t get there to say I really don’t understand, I can’t see, I can’t hear, I don’t speak the language,” Woodfolk says. As part of these efforts, the museum will soon provide American Sign Language training to frontline staff as well.
The Whitney Museum of American Art also has a bilingual initiative, which is currently focused on creating a space for the Spanish language community, the second most-spoken language in New York. Cris Scorza, the museum’s Helena Rubinstein Chair of Education, has a personal connection to the work as a person of Mexican heritage. “I, as a bilingual individual, can function in an English-speaking cultural institution at a very high level, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy going with my mom, who might not function at that level in English, where she can read the text in her own language and feel like it’s not being dumbed down,” she says. “It respects her experience as an art enthusiast in a different country and connects to the country where somebody could respond in Spanish even if she asked where the bathroom is.”
Embracing language identity as a cultural institution can help you connect on a whole new level with visitors and create greater bonding and engagement between staff and patrons. When language is used effectively, it creates a higher level of trust and commitment.
2. Create Foreign Language Programs for English-Speaking Employees
You can take solid steps in accessibility by building out staff language programs. Denver Zoo, for example, built out its popular Practicamos Español program so that employees could improve their Spanish-speaking skills through conversation, which many had requested as a way to better connect with each other and with visitors. “This initiative sprung from the Zoo’s core value of being ‘welcoming’,” says Dr. Nicole Marie Ortiz, the zoo’s DEIA Manager. “We feel it’s important to us to foster a sense of belonging, both within the Zoo team and for the guests who come to visit every day.”
Learning a language comes with challenges, but it also can be instrumental to teambuilding. As Dr. Ortiz points out, Practicamos Español has not only provided a non-judgmental space to practice language skills, but encouraged staff bonding across departments and teams. This year, the zoo plans to expand on its progress by partnering with its Latinx employee resource group to develop zoo-specific Spanish language resources for staff.
The Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) also offers language learning opportunities for staff, as part of a comprehensive DEAI strategy that treats language as a facet of accessibility. Virajita Singh, Mia’s Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, says the museum currently offers two Spanish beginner classes, which it intends to mark “a renewed chapter towards linguistic accessibility.”
While many language programs focus on staff, they can also be something you offer to volunteers, members, school programs, and even visitors. Take a look at Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco’s Spanish Lessons project at Marian Goodman Gallery, for instance, where art, language, and cultural events were on display for an entire month.
3. Create English Language Programs for Limited-Proficiency Employees
While many employees will be fluent in English and need lessons in your museum’s second language, for others it may be the reverse. Nearly one in ten working-age adults in the United States—a total of over 19.2 million people—is a limited-English-proficient (LEP) individual, meaning they have either limited or no capacity to communicate in English. For these people, learning English is essential not just to overcoming communication barriers at the workplace, but to gaining economic and social mobility. According to Brookings, while most LEP adults have a high school diploma and 15 percent hold a college degree, they earn 25 to 40 percent less than their English-speaking counterparts.
One museum that has offered English learning classes is The Frick Collection. In her twenty years as the museum’s Chief Human Resources Officer, Dana Spencer Winfield says the Frick has had many staff who have not spoken English as their first language, but has been fortunate to rely on multilingual colleagues willing to provide translation. However, she recognizes that just translating for staff is not enough. “We know that access is also about understanding and getting full information,” she says. The museum has offered two rounds of English language learning classes for staff in the past, most recently in 2019. The classes were held during regular work hours and all participants were paid their regular salary while participating. During the pandemic, the Frick began translating all formal employee communications and materials into Spanish, and providing in-person Spanish and ASL translation for all staff meetings and events. The museum plans to continue its language programming in the near future, offering English, ASL, and Spanish classes to staff. “This will help us communicate better internally and with the visiting public, contractors, and colleagues at sister institutions,” Winfield says.
4. Hire Bilingual Staff
In addition to helping existing staff learn a second language, you can expand your museum’s bilingual culture by placing emphasis on language skills in hiring. At the Whitney, for example, Scorza says she encourages her peers to be “very intentional” about hiring Spanish-speaking colleagues in every department across the institution. She sees becoming a bilingual museum as about more than just translating labels and exhibits, but embracing biculturalism. “Seventeen percent of New Yorkers are Spanish-speaking. Why not 17 percent of the employees?” she asks. “We need people that are proud of their bilingual identity. Then those people will understand the community we’re working with.”
With a shift in hiring practices comes a shift in onboarding and recruiting practices, including looking for candidates on diverse job boards, recruiting through colleges we don’t usually recruit from, and eliminating terms such as “excellent English communication skills” from job postings. For roles that explicitly require language proficiency, it also means conducting objective language evaluations by an external organization with no say in hiring.
Building a linguistically accessible museum is not done in a day, but remember, it’s not all about the big steps. It’s the small steps you take every single day: translating signage, listening to your staff’s language needs, interacting with the public, gathering your data, thinking ahead. I call these “micro-steps.” When done consistently, micro-steps allow you to make major leaps in DEAI, company culture, and overall wellness for your organization.
I’d like to think of accessibility as an opportunity: an opportunity to welcome new visitors, to have staff-visitor interactions that are truly genuine, to connect with communities on a whole new level, to embrace anyone you might’ve unintentionally overlooked. Keep your eyes open. How can you make your programming creatively accessible?
My challenge to you is to think of what steps you can take in 2023 and beyond to be a champion, not just an advocate, in cultural and linguistic accessibility for the communities you are not only serving, but those you want to serve and those you should serve. If these museums are doing it, so can you.