The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

28 March 2012

A Fourteenth Sounding: Multilingual Museums

A Linguistic Utopia or a Logistical Dystopia?

What, asks Jean Price, is the role of endangered languages in museums? What is the role of the museum in creating and supporting linguistic identities? Can they support endangered languages - should they, especially when different language groups come into conflict?

More than 40% of the languages in the world are unlikely to last the century. Three languages die every day, many more than animal and plant species. In these deaths, resources, knowledges, and cultures die. It is worth questioning how, why and whether these are worth preserving.

The government of the Republic of Ireland spends a huge amount of money supporting Irish, though it is spoken only in a few areas increasingly focused in the West of Ireland. It is very scattered, and there are claims that the different areas of Irish speak languages unintelligible to each other - whether this is true or not is questionable. Schools have massive pressure upon them to promote and teach Irish, and they do so often in forceful ways. People rebel.

The situation in the North is very different. A set of policies called the Good Relations Policies make provision for language protection, like their relative the Good Friday Agreements. Interestingly, however, because of the complex political situation in Ireland, indigenous languages are subsumed to the benefit of the incoming immigrant communities.

In the large tourist destinations, providing Irish language provision is not a priority: other languages such as German, French, Chinese and Slavic languages are deemed more important. Often members of staff are also speakers of these larger languages - but very often there are no Irish speakers. Costs, budgets, and time also play a part.

If a museum is located in a Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) region, they are often bilingual. There are compelling reasons for including Irish, which include identity and the symbolic power of speech. But they also often have strong content links to the Irish language, such as in the house of Pádraig Pearse; it is interesting to note that here, quotes originally written in Irish are not translated into English, but nor are quotes originally English translated into Irish.

In certain institutions a local or National language policy requires that Irish be slightly more prominent. There is, here, partly an issue of symbolic identity, whether contemporary or historic - particularly in institutions in Republican areas.

Many institutions clearly put a lot of effort into promoting Irish. In conducting exit surveys, Jean found that when she asked people how many languages they had seen in these bilingual museums, most noted that there were, at least, two languages, and nearly every person noticed that Irish came first. So clearly, it's being noticed. Interestingly, however, virtually no one seems to have used it; aside from those attending with children, who made those children read it!

So, to some extent, Irish has a purely symbolic role - depressing, if the language is supposed to survive and remain alive. But it is clear that there is an important relationship between language, history and identity, and that museums can play off this to create powerful resonances around displays and objects. In the V&A, objects are displayed with labels in their home languages - and this, for Jean, is an ideal.

Language is so important to us. Different languages inculcate different meanings, in and around people and objects, and whether they are accessible to everyone or not, their preservation seems worthwhile. It is, perhaps, inevitable that languages will die - everything changes and decays, and all languages are in a constant process of change. Is it worthwhile to attempt to preserve some elements of these meanings, however fragmentary and partial they may be, and however flawed our interpretations of those meanings are? The recreation, the identical rereading of a text or object out of its original context is impossible, even at times for those with direct access to the language. We need to recognize this, yet not let it deter us from attempting to preserve, and try to understand, everything that we can.

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