VI. Bienvenidos: Multilingual Technology in D.C. Museums

  • Melissa Garcia

I am first generation, American born in my family. My grandparents immigrated with my mother to the United States from Cuba in 1968. On my 20th birthday, nearly 50 years later, I took my mother to visit her very first art museum and a few years after that, I found myself working at one. I grew up in Miami where many people will approach you in Spanish before they do English and visitors at a museum will often ask for resources in Spanish (and other languages). It wasn’t until my grandmother visited, however, that I realized that for non-English speakers, like herself, the museum experience was much different. The museum where I worked, like all museums now, was working on being “more inclusive.” As part of this initiative, the museum acquired a work by Cameroonian artist Pascale Marthine Tayou titled “Welcome Wall” and displayed it in the lobby. The work features over 70 flashing neon signs reading the word “welcome” in different languages. I’d watch from front desk as visitors would snap a picture pointing at the word in their own language, which perhaps did make them feel welcomed. I have seen welcome walls like this in other museums, inviting people of all backgrounds to enter. However, for non-English speakers like my grandmother, the word “welcome” may be the only thing she and other people from diverse non-English speaking cultures are able to grasp during their visit due to the lack of multilingual resources.

I now find myself in Washington, DC, surrounded by some of the most well recognized museums in the world. My studies have led me here and when asked what I wanted to write about I knew exactly what I thought needed to be said. As museums in Miami, DC, and all over the world work towards being more inclusive and incorporating more technology, how does multilingualism play a role? Although I hope one day to be able to look at the role of multilingualism within museums nationwide (globally, if I am being super optimistic) for the purpose of this essay I will be looking at two different museums in Washington, DC to see what, if any, multilingual technology they offer. After discussing this, I will discuss the factors that go into adopting multilingual technology in museums and how these resources and their benefits.

For this essay, I have chosen to look at The Phillips Collection and The National Portrait Gallery. There are no specific reasons for choosing these two museums other than that I was able to easily access them and that I wanted to perhaps compare and contrast a smaller and larger institution. Although this essay may not yet lead to any conclusive results, it is my belief that technology can be used as an effective facilitator of multilingualism within museums and that it can be used to enhance the visitor experience for low-proficiency or non-English speakers. Additionally, as museums seek to create more inclusive, diverse, equitable, and accessible environments, an argument can be made that providing these technology-driven multilingual resources can also help raise the demographic of non-English speaking visitors by allowing them to feel more welcomed.

In this essay, when speaking of multilingualism within museums I am referring specifically to multilingual resources for visitor engagement. Although traditionally these resources can be things such as the wall text for an exhibition or a catalogue, my focus will be on multilingual resources provided through a form of technology. I will be looking at how using technology as a multilingual resource in museums will not only allow museums to be more inclusive to diverse non-English speaking audiences by allowing them the opportunity to engage with the museum in a more similar way as English speakers, but may also make these audiences more likely to visit.


Before I continue, it may be helpful to provide some definitions for the key terms I’ve used in this piece:

Diversity: All the ways that people are different and the same at the individual and group levels. Even when people appear the same, they are different. Organizational diversity requires examining and questioning the makeup of a group to ensure that multiple perspectives are represented.1

Equity: The fair and just treatment of all members of a community. Equity requires commitment to strategic priorities, resources, respect, and civility, as well as ongoing action and assessment of progress toward achieving specific goals.2

Accessibility: Giving equitable access to everyone along the continuum of human ability and experience. Accessibility encompasses the broader meanings of compliance and refers to how organizations make space for the characteristics that each person brings.3

Inclusion: Refers to the intentional, ongoing effort to ensure that diverse individuals fully participate in all aspects of organizational work, including decision-making processes. It also refers to the ways that diverse participants are valued as respected members of an organization and/or community.4

Limited English Proficiency (LEP): LEP persons are individuals who do not speak English as their primary language and who have a limited ability to read, speak, write, or understand English.5

Bilingual/Multilingual: Individuals who can speak, read, and write in two or more languages, especially with equal fluency. Multilingual resources within museums refer to museums that provide resources in two or more languages.6

Working Towards Diversity

Over the past several years, discussions around museum diversity and inclusion have surrounded the field. Concurrently, as technology has advanced, museums have begun to adapt new forms of technology. Promises of IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility) and new technological initiatives are located within many museums’ revised mission statement, vision and strategic plans for the future, including the ones discussed in this essay.

Below I will discuss my personal bilingual experiences within The Phillips Collection and National Portrait Gallery in light of these discussions. I had done no prior research on the multilingual technology that was being offered by either of these institutions. My reason for doing so is that I wanted to have a more genuine experience as a first time, bi-lingual visitor.

The Phillips Collection

Mission Statement: The Phillips Collection is an exceptional collection of modern and contemporary art in a dynamic environment for collaboration, innovation, engagement with the world, scholarship, and new forms of public participation.

The Phillips Collection (TPC) has made large strides in the past year to move towards becoming a more diverse and inclusive museum. Since the 2015 Andrew Mellon Foundation report on diversity in art museums TPC has been a catalyst for change among DC institutions. In a statement in an article written by the Washington Post in 2018, Dorothy Kosinski, Director and CEO, challenged other institutions in the city to open its doors to all and shared that her goal is to “initiate the transformation of the arts industry in Washington so that it represents the true nature of the city.”7 Since then, TPC has achieved the goal of becoming a more diversified and inclusive museum in several ways. In April of 2019, TPC announced the appointment of the museums first Chief Diversity Officer, Makeba Clay, who I was able to speak with whilst researching this piece. The museum was able to secure this position and allow for a new program of paid internships and fellows by securing major funding through an endowment. TPC has also worked towards diversifying their collection and exhibits and is striving to “create an environment where stories of diverse audiences are shared.”8 Currently, along with their permanent collection and other exhibition, TPC has an exhibition titled Intersections: Cuba Va by the Cuban artist collective Los Carpinteros on view. The exhibitions offers bilingual wall text in English and Spanish.

Although The Phillips Collection does offer multilingual wall text for certain exhibitions, it does not currently offer any multilingual technology. The Phillips Collection does currently have an app which can be downloaded onto a mobile device. The app itself is a bit outdated compared to other apps I have used in museums and, in my experience, takes quite a long time to download. Once downloaded, however, the app is simple to navigate and is very straight forward, something I have come to appreciate after getting lost in museum apps in the past. My first stop on the app was for the Intersections: Los Carpinteros, Cuba Va exhibition. The only resource the app provides for this is a single image and a brief description of the exhibition in English. The page for this exhibition on TPC’s website also fails to include text in Spanish, although the exhibition itself contains these resources. I found it interesting that although these materials had already been prepared for the wall text in the exhibition that they had not been used in any of the museum’s technology.

I currently hold one of the paid internship positions at TPC that was funded through the endowment and am working in the Director and Development offices. Through this position I have been able to gain valuable insight on the work TPC has done to become more inclusive and how they plan to continue moving forward to continue making strides towards becoming a more inclusive institution.

Mission Statement: The mission of the National Portrait Gallery is to tell the story of America by portraying the people who shape the nation’s history, development and culture.

I visited The National Portrait Gallery without having first done any research on what, if any, multilingual resources they offered. I was pleased to find that they offered bilingual exhibition labels in English and in Spanish. I have since discovered that The National Portrait Gallery considers itself a Bilingual institution. The museum underwent an initiative to become fully bilingual, included resources in English and Spanish. In 2016, the Smithsonian released the Smithsonian Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives report in order to assess the progress made in their goal to become a more diverse and inclusive institution. The report lists several multilingual initiatives that were undertaken by NPG. Two of the initiatives which are listed as completed on the report are having exhibition label translation for underrepresented groups of non-English-speaking individuals and website translation into Spanish. One of the initiatives that is listed as planned is providing mobile device tours for diverse audiences.

While walking through “Champions,” an exhibition on American sports figures, I decided to test out the Smartify app which is advertised frequently around the museum. Smartify is used by many museums, which one can download onto their own mobile device, that works via image recognition software. To use the app, users are asked to hold the camera of their mobile devices up to the artwork which they want to learn more about. The app then pulls up information for the artwork. Upon opening the app, users are asked to choose from 13 different languages. I chose Spanish and began to explore. The first thing I noticed about the app is that all the menu and function buttons were in Spanish. After setting up the app to recognize that I was at NPG, I hovered my camera over Walter Chauncey Camp, an oil painting by Albert W. Hampson which is featured in the Champions exhibition. To my disappointment, the app pulled up the information for the painting in English, although having the Spanish wall text already existing at the museum. I tried this for several other works and got the same result, which left me a bit discouraged until I made my way to the exhibition “America’s Presidents.”

I would like for it to be noted that although I, as a bilingual speaker, am able to enjoy NPG using their many resources in English, for the purpose of this experience, I tried solely to rely on Spanish resources. As a Spanish speaker, I had never quite had an experience like the one I had in “America’s Presidents” while visiting a museum. Downloading the Smartify app is immediately encouraged when entering the space for this exhibition. On the app, there is a section titled “tours de tendencia” (trending tours) which features an audio tour of the exhibition. I will admit that going simply off the app this was a bit simpler to navigate knowing English, as there is no instructions or indications that there will also be audio in Spanish. Still, if a visitor were inquisitive enough, they could find resources in Spanish. When clicking on one of the ten artworks for which there is an audio description the words “detalles de la obra” (details of the work) appear. After clicking this, users are able to read a description of the artwork in Spanish and also listen to an audio description in Spanish. As I kept wandering throughout the exhibition, I came across a touch kiosk which visitors could use to learn more about the presidents and see other materials and works of art. I was very pleased to see that at the bottom of the main screen was an option to use the kiosk in Spanish. I found this to be particularly important because it allows non-English speakers (in this case Spanish speakers) to engage with the exhibition and learn from the technology being offered in the same way English speakers do.

After my visit to NPG, I continued to explore the Smartify app for any features I may have missed during my visit. After clicking “ver colección de esta sede,” I was able to go through 960 images of works in the museum, almost all of which I clicked through had a description in Spanish. The app also includes a profile for users which saves into a collection the images which were scanned during the visit to the museum. I immediately went to the painting of Walter Chauncey Camp. Unfortunately, I could still not find the description in Spanish. At the bottom of the English description provided in the app, there is a link to the NPG website (which is also in English). After clicking the link, I immediately noticed the option to change the language of the website to Spanish. I clicked this but still saw no change. It should also be noted that although Smartify does offer differently 13 languages, I was only able to find resources in English and Spanish for NPG. Upon trying other languages, such as Italian and French, I was met with English-only resources.

Although I was able to have an experience like no other using the multilingual resources provided by NPG, the issue with the Walter Chauncey Camp painting left me wondering about how non-English speakers would have reacted to not immediately seeing resources in their language and the issues that may come from using technology as a resource. It also brought to my attention some of the decisions that go into incorporating resources such as choosing what languages to provide.

Benefits, Challenges and Things to Consider

Issues such as diversifying staff, exhibitions, and collections have begun to be tackled, but what are museums doing to enhance the visitor experience for limited proficiency or non-English speakers? Should they do anything and how should it be done?

Documented by a study created by the Association of Science-Technology Centers and further expressed by ongoing conversations in the field, museums are facing hurdles such as available time, money, staffing, the difficulty in determining audience desires, and the need to ensure the quality and consistency of translations.9 Below I will discuss some best practices when it comes to facing these issues and provide recommendations for achieving multilingualism through technology and who can benefit from it.

Who can Benefit from Multilingual Resources and How?

Low-proficiency or non-English speakers in the museum’s community: Non-English speakers can benefit from having multilingual resources by being able to share an equitable experience with English speaking visitors. Low-proficiency English speakers can benefit from multilingual resources for the same reason and also by allowing them the opportunity to enhance their English.

Underrepresented communities whose culture is being exhibited at the Museum: Some museums have begun to diversify their exhibitions to better represent their community. Multilingual resources could benefit the community whose culture is being represented in the exhibition by allowing them to feel more welcomed to the museum and be an active participator in celebrating that culture. It also allowed them to be able to better share their culture with English speakers by providing a bridge between language barriers that there may be.

Multilingual families: Multilingual resources can be used as a tool for intergenerational learning in families where parents may be low-proficiency or non-English speakers and the children are English speakers. Having multilingual resources allows parents and children to have a more meaningful experience at museums. The Bilingual Exhibits Research Initiative (BERI) Report found that bilingual interpretation promoted intergenerational conversation between family members and allows them to interpret exhibitions together.10

Tourists: Although many tourists may only visit a museum once when travelling, multilingual resources can still enhance their overall experience. Having multilingual resources could also attract more tourists who speak the language of the resources that are now being provided by the museum.

Look at and Talk with Your Community

I believe the first step to tackling the hurdles of multilingualism and assessing who can benefit best from multilingual technology is to look at the demographics, wants, and needs of the museum’s community and audience. Museums in Washington, DC attract visitors from all over the world and have some of the highest visitor numbers per year. In 2015, DC attracted 2 million visitors from overseas. The greatest number of visitors coming from China, United Kingdom, Germany, France, India, South Korea, Australia, Italy, Spain and Japan.11

Washington, DC itself is a diverse city. Its community is shared with many cultures in which English is not the spoken language. According to DCPRESS, 17% of DC residents speak a language other than English at home and 14% of DC residents were foreign born. DC is also home to many international organizations, companies, international cultural centers and embassies.12

The following is a summary of the data collected from Washington, DC in the 2018 Census.13

A summary of the data collected from Washington, DC in the 2018 Census.
A pie chart showing the demographic make-up of the Washington, DC, area in the 2018 Census against a white background.

A summary of the data collected from Washington, DC in the 2018 Census.

In 2004, the Smithsonian conducted a museum-wide survey. The survey found that 10% of visitors museum-wide lived outside of the United States. The survey also found that their visitors were becoming more ethnically diverse throughout the years. In 2004, 74% of visitors reported they were non-Latino white, while 82% reported the same in 1994.14 The racial identification of visitors varied throughout the different museums. Most interestingly, however, was how visitors who identified themselves as belonging to an ethnic or racial minority rated the relevance of the exhibits in the museums to themselves personally. Eleven percent of minority visitors scored personal relevance to the exhibits as poor or fair.15

Even within a city such as D.C., which has specific demographic make-up, different museums may receive or want to target different audiences. As noted by bilingual writer Julie Schwietert Collazo, one of the many challenges of making museums multilingual is the way museums make decisions over the matter, such as choosing what languages should be prioritized and whether or not to consider new audiences rather than focusing on regular patrons.16 When making these decisions, it is important for museums to consider and evaluate the wants and needs of their community and those who could benefit from multilingual resources. This can be done in several ways, many of which the museum is most likely already actively doing. The study conducted by ASTC demonstrates that 42% of US institutions obtain feedback from local community members through surveys, focus groups, obtaining feedback through cards, advisory groups and directly from members of the public.17

Using Technology to Facilitate Multilingualism

As museums move into the future, there have been countless initiatives to better incorporate technology, especially in regards to how it can shape the visitor experience. Digital technology in museums can serve as a facilitator of multilingual efforts and allow for an equitable experience for low proficiency or non-English speakers. Although having non-digital resources such as exhibition labels in other languages is a step in the right direction when it comes to multilingualism, providing resources using technology can better benefit the museum and the visitor alike. When deciding which way to incorporate multilingual technology, museums have several options, some of which may work better than others for certain institutions or in different situations.

The most common way of providing digital resources for visitors is through BYOD (bring your own device) programs. This includes things such as the museums website or an app that can be accessed through a visitors own personal device. Through BYOD museums can offer countless multilingual resources such as visual exhibitions guides or audio guides. There are advantages and disadvantages with BYOD. One of the advantages is that each visitor will be able to access the multilingual resource if they wish, whereas with experiences that are contingent on being accessed at the museum may not be readily available. Another benefit to BYOD programs is that many of them can still be accessed from home, meaning that low proficiency or non-English speaking visitors can plan ahead or continue learning once they have left the museum. Disadvantages to BYOD could be that visitors may not want to use their phones or download an app while at the museum or simply that they don’t even know it exists or what it offers. These are discussed in a study conducted by Frankly Green + Webb which analyzes the design of the mobile service being provided and the visitor experience. Editor Lindsey Green created a model to identify six key factors that go into the visitor experience when using digital technology: easy to understand, easy to purchase, usability, awareness, easy to use and value.18 When discussing awareness, she notes that research showed a direct correlation between awareness and use and the importance of the museum doing a good job of ensuring that visitors know the resource exists. I found this to be particularly true through my own experience at museums.

Another form of provided multilingual resources is through technology that lives within the museum and can only be accessed once physically there. This can include things such as audio tours, QR codes, or in-gallery technology such as touch kiosks. These digital resources are used to enhance the visitor experience and add an extra element to the exhibition. The disadvantage to these resources is that not everyone can use them at once, audio guides provided directly by museums may be limited and using an in-gallery interactive means having to share with the rest of the museum visitors. Still, I think it is worth museums considering making these forms of technology available to limited proficiency or non-English speakers to provide an equitable museum experience, especially within exhibitions which may be representative of a specific community or culture whose language may not be English. The model created by Green can also be used when developing these technologies as it shares many of the same concerns as BYOD.

Because technology is constantly evolving, another issue to consider is making sure the technology being offered by a museum is also evolving. As exhibitions and programs change, it is also necessary for museum technology to be updated to reflect what is currently being exhibited. For these reasons, it is important that museums develop a digital strategy in order to be prepared when these circumstances are presented. Because developing multilingual digital initiatives also requires discussion around budget, community, engagement, and translation it is important the museum involve their staff, board, and community to share the knowledge and resources they may have. Nonetheless, I believe the benefits of using technology to facilitate multilingualism when done correctly can definitely outweigh the concerns.

What the Future Holds

Although studies have shown there are clear benefits to providing multilingual resources within a museum, the conclusion of this essay is not one that yet offers definitive answers. Instead, I have done my best as an emerging museum professional and bilingual speaker to provide an analysis of what multilingual digital resources I have seen are being provided and recommendations for the future.

I believe museums in Washington, DC, such as TPC and NPG, can serve as an example for institutions across the nation. However, there are institutions that have already made significant strides and who already offer great multilingual resources through digital technology, such as the Fitchburg Art Museum in Massachusetts. In 2013, the museum embarked on an effort to become fully bilingual in order to better represent their community, 39% of which is Latino. FAM uses digital bilingual resources through their website which serves as a mobile app which can be used through a visitor’s own device or Ipad provided by the museum. Although the site is intended to be used while at the museum, I was able to experience it from my device at home for the “Discover Ancient Egypt” exhibition. The guide offers images with descriptions, in depth explanations, and answers questions on the work presented in spanish.

Overall, if there is anything museum professionals who are considering providing multilingual resources in their museum can take from this is that someone, like my grandmother, will benefit from it and an effort is needed to be made.


  1. “Definitions of Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion,” American Alliance of Museums, April 30, 2018,
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. “Natural Resources Conservation Service,” NRCS, accessed November 27, 2019,
  6. Merriam-Webster, s.v. “multilingual,” accessed November 27, 2019,
  7. Dorothy Kosinski, “Opinion | How the Phillips Collection Is Diversifying the Art World,” The Washington Post (WP Company, May 18, 2018), -is-diversifying-the-art-world/2018/05/18/03d957a6-591e-11e8-858f-12becb4d6067_story.html.
  8. Ibid
  9. “Museums Share Their Best Practices for Reaching Multilingual Audiences,” Guggenheim, January 25, 2019,
  10. US Census
  11. “Washington, DC Facts,”, July 8, 2019,
  12. Ibid
  13. Steven Yalowitz et al., “Bilingual Exhibit Research Initiative: Institutional and Intergenerational Experiences with Bilingual Exhibitions,” 2013
  14. Smithsonian Institution Office of Policy and Analysis, “Results of the 2004 Smithsonian-wide Survey of Museum Visitors,” Washington, DC, 2004
  15. Ibid
  16. Julie Schwietert Collazo et al., “The Challenge of Making US Museums Multilingual,” Hyperallergic, January 4, 2017,
  17. “Multilingual Interpretation in Science Centers and Museums,” Association of Science-Technology Centers, Inc, Exploratorium, Accessed November 29, 2019,,0,96
  18. “What We Know about Mobile Experiences in Museums after 6 Years of Research,” Medium (Frankly Green Webb, August 27, 2016),