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Museums and galleries

Reaching out to a global audience

The Museum of Macau
The Museum of Macau: three languages reaching out to half the world's readers.

MUSEUMS and galleries are much in the news, and they should be. They are a critical part of the public sphere, where people can meet, debate, contemplate, and converse. They are fundamental to democracy, to mass political movements, and to the modern evolution of art and science. They are places where urban crowds can discover not only their past but a new dignity and intellectual liberty.

In today's world, the struggle for democracy, dignity, and liberty embraces the whole planet. Museums and galleries are the first places to reflect this development. They now address global issues like:

Addressing the global audience

The arrival of new digital and online technologies has also given museums the opportunity to reach a much larger audience. Even tiny museums like the Museum of the Institute of Texan Culture use the Internet not only to support local programs and exhibits, but to broadcast their message to the whole world.

The arrival of immigrants, guest workers, and foreign tourists also adds a new importance to the language diversity of today's audience. In response, many museums today offer displays, Websites, printed guides, and audioguides in different languages. The handsome Museum of Macau features both online and display texts in Chinese, Portuguese, and English, giving it access to half the world's readers.

The response of many other museums, however, has been less remarkable. The new National Museum of Language in Maryland lists all the world's languages online, but speaks about them only in English. The museum of the Hispanic Society of America is English-only as well as the prize-winning webzine, The Global Museum. The prestigious J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles presides over the second largest Spanish-speaking population in the world, but has only one page in Spanish.

Machine translation to the rescue

Many organizations, including the City of Surrey in British Columbia, have taken up the global challenge. Using Google Translate, they offer their museum Web pages in over 50 languages.

Tools like Google Translate are a good solution for museums looking to make general information easily available in multiple languages at low cost. While the translation tools are not yet perfect, they are fairly accurate in most cases, and are well-suited for credible on-the-fly translations.

Picture interactive museum display An interactive museum display: visitors also benefit greatly from texts that match their reading ability.

The challenge of readability

If their Websites are any indication, museums have been less than responsive to literacy diversity. Not only do people speak different languages, they have different levels of reading skill within the same language. National surveys show that half the adult population reads below the 9th-grade level. More than a third reads below the 6th-grade level. To reach the widest audience, you have to accommodate those different levels of reading skill.

Moreover, when it comes to translation, the easier the original text, the easier and more accurate will be the translation. The greater the complexity, the greater is the chance for error. Many Websites are written at the 16th-grade level, putting them out of reach of 95 percent of the reading public.

Here ia a listing of a sample of museum Websites and the reading levels of their exhibit descriptions as measured by the original Dale-Chall formula:

Museum WebsiteGrade Level
Baltimore Museum of Art 16
Field Museum Chicago 16
Brooklyn Childrens' Museum16
Whitney Museum of American Art16
Hispanic Society of America16
Whitney Museum of American Art16
Museum of Flight Seattle 16
Prince of Wales Museum Mumbai 16
National Museum of Singapore16
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art16
San Diego Museum of Art16
St. Louis City Museum 15
Australian Museum Sydney 15
National Gallery of Art Washington 15
Philadelphia Museum of Art 15
Museum of New Zealand 13
Louvre Museum Paris 13
Adventure Science Center 12
Bishop Museum Honolulu 12
National Gallery London 12
Chicago Museum of Science and Industry10

Needed: accessible language

As we can see from the list, the museums gave no thought to the diverse reading skills of their visitors. Even children's museums use the advanced language meant for professionals and college professors. Only a tiny fraction of the adult population can read such language.

This failure of communication is an enormous waste of resources, time, money, and readership. It reflects badly on the organization. A more accessible language would go a long way to promote the confidence of the taxpayers and donors who fund it.

Even with today's digital presentations, text remains central to any exhibit. Today's multi-generational, multi-lingual, and multi-literate audience needs texts that are to-the-point, brief, and accessible.

Take this sample from the Baltimore Museum of Art:

More than 200 compelling images showcase photography's extraordinary development since 1960 in this gripping exhibition. Seeing Now offers a striking snapshot of the world around us as seen through the eyes of more than 60 photographers—including Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, Garry Winogrand, and Cindy Sherman.

This exhibition reveals the astonishing breadth and depth of the BMA's outstanding photography collection and presents many recent acquisitions being shown at the museum for the first time. Works include single photographs, series, film, and video. Examine sub-cultures and expressions of the human form; natural and man-made environments; ephemeral performances and artistic projects; and the role of light and time in photography. (108 words, grade 16)

Applying a common touch and a more down-to-earth style comes up with something like this:

Our show, Seeing Now, has more than 200 photos taken since 1960. They show us the world through the eyes of more than 60 photographers. They include Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, Garry Winogrand, and Cindy Sherman.

If you like these pictures, we have lots of other photos, films, and videos for you. Some show different groups of people. There are studies of the human body. Some look at our natural and man-made worlds in new ways. One shows how light and time work in taking pictures. There is also performance art, acted out by real people.
(95 words, grade 7)

Or take this long-winded and badly organized example:

Plan a dream home or a dog house, build a skyscraper model, find the best arrangement of an apartment model’s rooms and furniture, construct a structure you can crawl through, and much more in the bilingual (English and Spanish) show, created by Brooklyn Children’s Museum in association with The Center for Architecture Foundation. The exhibition introduces children to the design process, including collaborative problem-solving, planning, revisions, and execution.

Inside Building Brainstorm and you’ll find a kid-friendly studio environment inspired by the philosophy and aesthetic of mid-century designers Charles and Ray Eames. Filled with architectural plans, photographs, models, and authentic building elements, the show features interactive workbenches and job sites that equip diminutive designers to brainstorm creative solutions for architectural and engineering challenges. Kids will discover the basics of buildings while exploring the process of creating structures that match the needs of the people inside them.(145 words, grade 16)

Why not something like this:

In English and Spanish, our Building Brainstorm shows kids how to build things. They can plan a dream house or a dog house. They can build a skyscraper or a tunnel they can crawl through. They can learn the best way to arrange an apartment.

Through pictures, models, and real tools, they learn what architects and engineers do. They learn what people need in a building. They learn planning, design, and how to solve problems together.

Ideas for this hands-on project came from famous designers Charles and Ray Eames. Support came from The Center for Architecture Foundation. (97 words, grade 8)

Museums and galleries are not only repositories of learning and art. They have valuable lessons on who we are and what we may become. For that reason, they deserve to be as lively and accessible as possible.


Gray and Leary's classic

What is readability?

Picture of How to Make a Book Readable
This 1935 classic set the course for research on readability that continues to this day.

IN the of the 1935 book, What Makes a Book Readable, the authors William Gray and Bernice Leary quote a dictionary definition of readability: "A readable book is one that may be read with satisfaction or interest; that it is attractive in style or treatment; that is easy and pleasant to read."

They further commented: "There is implied in this definition that the test of a readable book lies in the pleasurable reaction which it creates in the reader by its content, its attractive style, or by the ease with which it can be read."

They then quote James Harvey Robinson's book, The Humanizing of Knowledge, "Knowledge is readable when it is humanized." A readable book "must do three things," he wrote:

  1. It must enlist the reader's attention;
  2. The facts and information must be presented in terms and an order which will be understood by him and will fit into his way of looking at things and,
  3. The significance of the information in its bearing on the reader's thought and conduct and his judgment of others should be wisely suggested.

The rest of the chapter is devoted to a survey they conducted on what makes a book readable. Responses to their survey came in from 79 persons, including 34 librarians, 16 publishers, and 29 teachers or directors of adult education. The responses produced 289 variables, all rated according to importance. They found that the variables could all be grouped under four headings:

  1. Content, including theme, nature of the subject matter, and unity.
  2. Style, including those features relating to reading skill: vocabulary, sentence structure, paragraph length, etc.
  3. Format, including physical features of design, appearance, weight, typeface, use of space, attractiveness, etc.
  4. Features of usability, including titles, divisions, chapters, headings, paragraphs, and a reference.

The respondents clearly indicated that content was of by far the most important element. It includes all those features of purpose, organization, timeliness, and interest that we associate with rhetoric.

The second item, style, is regarded as almost as important as content in importance.

Gray and Leary summed up: "Two aspects are held essential to a readable book. One is interesting content, and the other a presentation simple enough to be understood."


Plain language in the news

Judge writes like paperback novelist: http://tinyurl.com/62a3jt7

New requirements for health-plan Benefits and Coverage Summary: http://tinyurl.com/3g4wdh5

Old adults like young-adult fiction: http://tinyurl.com/3qqb24z

Readability of annual reports improves analyst's accuracy: http://tinyurl.com/3hs54fz

Reading insurance policies not getting easier: http://tinyurl.com/3oqtauw

More on Wisconsin's insurance readability issue: http://tinyurl.com/3sa4h9j

Plain-language awards from the Center for Plain Language: http://tinyurl.com/3wrwpbo

Climate researchers told to use plain language: http://tinyurl.com/428p658

Swap plain language for management-speak: http://tinyurl.com/3qo8jaw

Pension funds must use plain language: http://tinyurl.com/3vlmusj

Guidance issued for Plain Language Writing Act of 2010: http://tinyurl.com/3wal2hl

Better labeling could prevent drug overdose: http://tinyurl.com/3ptek7o

Voters must stand up against doublespeak: http://tinyurl.com/3enefyk

New Zealand Consumer Protection Act: http://tinyurl.com/3lgau82

FedSpeak, in plain English: http://tinyurl.com/5v2a38f

Barriers to financial literacy: http://tinyurl.com/3rqlzo3

Finding a path through health-care gobbledygook: http://tinyurl.com/3mev8nl

Visualizing federal data: http://tinyurl.com/3ud5do2

Financial illiteracy among employees: http://tinyurl.com/3slx5yw

America's historical illiteracy: http://tinyurl.com/3wjdxnw

Making sense of dollars: http://tinyurl.com/3gd5687