Your Questions Answered: How to Authentically Represent & Engage Your Community Through Interpretive Programming

May 29, 2020 Mike Simmons

Your Questions Answered: How To Authentically Represent & Engage Your Community Through Interpretive Programming 

By Mike Simmons 


Last month I had the privilege of speaking with thought-leaders in the arts & culture space, Juline Chevalier, Head of Interpretation and Participatory Experiences at Minneapolis Institute of ArtNisa Mackie, Director and Curator of Education and Public Programs at Walker Art Center; and Rosie May, Director of Curatorial Affairs and Public Engagement at Oklahoma City Museum of Art (formerly the Associate Director of Education, Interpretation and Visitor Research at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago) about how their respective museums are expanding programming to more authentically represent the multicultural nature of their surrounding communities.  

The panelists shared first-hand their experiences implementing multilingual programming, and we discussed other means of expanding accessibility such as providing interpretive programming for those with limited vision or hearing. If you weren’t able to join us live, definitely watch the recording here. It was an engaging, thought-provoking discussion in which we fielded many audience questions. We actually had such a volume of audience questions that we couldn’t answer them all in our allotted time! So, in an effort to continue the discussion, here are the panelists’ thoughts to your most asked questions: 

Where to start when creating multilingual programming? 

  • Juline Chevalier – “At the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) we often look for the entry points that are small and simple to start. For example, when we hosted the exhibition At Home With Monsters which featured the personal collection of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, we chose to translate the panel text into Spanish since that is del Toro's first language, we have a significant Spanish-speaking population in the Twin Cities, and the exhibition was widely appealing. It wasn't a huge amount of text, but it had a big impact because we put the Spanish on the wall next to the English to show its importance. Be sure to think about placement and visual hierarchy when presenting translations. When possible, put them on the wall in an equal location/size to the English.”  

  • Nisa Mackie – “The Walker Art Center started its multi-lingual programming from many different places. For its K-12 and family programming the start was in the community relationships that had been built with non-profits and artists. That was the basis of consultation and feedback sessions, but also in identifying when and where multilingual offerings are most useful. Personally, I think the most rewarding programs and learning opportunities about how to develop sustainable practices come from outside the institution. However, there are occasional exhibitions where translated didactics or programs in languages other than English were necessary and the decisions were made almost exclusively internally. The Walker’s 2017 exhibition Adios Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art since 1950 was one example of this; most of the curators of the exhibition were living and working in Cuba and wrote the didactics in their native language. These were then translated to English and we offered both in the gallery.”  

How to prioritize translations and interpretations? 

  • Juline Chevalier – “Consider where multilingual programming can support a visitor/user throughout their experience. Don't leave people hanging. If I come to an event because it's been promoted to me in a bilingual flyer, but then no one at the event can speak to me in my language, I'm not going to have a very positive experience. Ask your audiences. When working with local immigrant communities and support organizations, we learned that even though French isn't a municipal language (i.e. used in city government communications), that it was one that is common among immigrant communities.” ​​​​​​​​​​​​​This is about building relationships. If you are not already working with folks who will use multilingual programs, then you are creating in a vacuum and you aren't as likely to actually meet an existing need. These relationships take time to build. Trust needs to be created and personal invitations are often key to getting new visitors into the museum.”  
  • Nisa Mackie – “The Walker has prioritized its translations and interpretations based on need for now. So, for example, in our current collection exhibition we only have translations in Somali and Spanish. This is because, although Hmong is also a municipal language, our research highlighted that more Hmong speak English than the other two language groups. We do also have Educators and staff that speak Hmong, but in having to make the tough decision about exhibition floor plan real estate we had to [prioritize].”  

  • Rosie May – “[When I was] At the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, since we work with living artists, we let the artist lead this decision. In a recent case, the artist we were working with proposed bilingual labels because her work dealt with communities in Latin American countries. She was born to Columbian parents and is bilingual but her desire to do bilingual labels had more to do with the subject of her work.”


What services/tech or groups can be used to help deliver multilingual programming? 

  • Juline Chevalier – “Remember that translation is a skill and just because someone is fluent or a native speaker doesn't mean they can or should translate. Use a professional and pay them for their time and expertise. Rates can run anywhere from $0.10 to $0.35 per word. It is best practice to have a native speaker proofread translations.”  

  • Nisa Mackie – “We use a couple of different translation companies such as Straker Translations for text translations, and then we often work in-house with our staff to proof or to write signage and other things that are short and quick.” 


Can you share more about your experiences with Braille or American Sign Language (ASL)? 

  • Nisa Mackie – “We don’t use Braille at the Walker but we offer ASL and audio-described tours on request. Many of our Educators are trained in audio-description, and we hire outside translators for ASL. We also experiment with translated performances and films. For example, last year the Walker brought in ASL interpreters to translate a 10-hr experimental sound festival called Resonance. It was pretty amazing to watch these translators communicate experimental sound into ASL for 10 straight hours!”  

  • Juline Chevalier – “You can see some of Mia's access programs here. The Walker also has some awesome Sensory-Friendly events for visitors on the Autism Spectrum and who have Sensory Processing Disorders, that Nisa didn't mention. At Mia, we've got social narratives online to help neurodivergent visitors prep for a visit here. We're also exploring ways to create a sensory map for visitors to highlight the kinds of lights and sounds folks will find in different areas of the museum.  

    Like the Walker, we offer ASL interpretation through a service upon request. We also offer a monthly public tour interpreted in ASL. Recently, we've been doing more to offer live ASL interpretation of lectures and programs. To promote these, we've created short videos in ASL to get the word out to the signing community.  As described here, reach out to the disability community to find out what would be of interest/use. When promoting your events, be sure to add specific details about what/how things are accessible.  
  • Rosie May – “We offer ASL tours for the deaf community and Touch Tours for the seeing impaired. What we have learned from both experiences is that these groups wanted tours specifically for their groups. Our first attempt at ASL tours was a hearing guide giving a tour that was translated by an ASL interpreter. Since ASL is its own language, this was less than satisfactory and we started to offer tours only in ASL by one of our staff who is deaf herself and attends our docent training. These tours happen once during the major exhibitions and they are marketed directly to the deaf community and only people who understand ASL attend because there is no one translating the ASL. For Touch Tours, we began working with the Blind and Low Vision community and at first, we opened the touch tours to the general public. We found that seeing guests would crowd out the blind and low vision visitors so we began to market it to this constituency and require reservations. We hold these tours three times a year in our Chicago Works exhibitions because the exhibition is the work of a local artist and they give permission for the touch tour and typically lead the tour with one of our staff or artist guides.”   


We look forward to more collaborative discussions about how cultural organizations can expand their audience reach while more authentically representing their surrounding communities. You can join us for all of our future #shareyourculture conversations here. And tweet at us @BlackbaudACS with any ideas!  

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