Travel can be entertaining, educational, and … when you don’t speak the language … frustrating. During a recent vacation in Germany and Austria, I encountered a variety of ways museums communicate information about their collections to non-German speaking visitors. I became curious. Do European museums do a better job serving their foreign visitors than museums in the United States?
At the simplest level, many collections are accessible to the visitor without explanation. The scientific and technological displays and models of the Deutsches Museum in Munich, for example, are delightfully self-explanatory. Full-size machines and systems are reproduced in miniature inside dioramas that put them in context. There was little textual material in any language in this museum where the most complex of scientific marvels are presented as overgrown toys for the visitor to play with. It is possible to enjoy a zoo or art museum, too, on a purely visual basis without a guide. Most museum-goers, however, are eager to know more than they can perceive without language.
The most common way of communicating with foreign visitors is via print. Some small museums such as the Heimatmuseum (Folklore Museum) in Berchtesgarden offered a room-by-room general description of the artifacts with some contextual background. Other museums provided floorplans in several languages, but little additional information. Each room in the museum of the Benedictine Abbey in Melk, Austria, contained written information about the exhibition’s theme in both German and English. Here, as in all the museums visited, label copy was written only in German. Most small museums and museums outside the tourist centers offered no non-German information about their collections.
Large museums and those in the more heavily visited cities spoke to their foreign visitors in a variety of ways. A rather innovative communication method was installed in the Hohensalzburg Fortress in Salzburg, Austria. At key locations throughout the castle buildings and grounds, “Phonomat” offered a brief description of the immediate surroundings in exchange for a few schillings. The aesthetic shock of what appeared to be a bright yellow pay phone in a medieval castle was somewhat offset by the pleasant voice and instructive message. Recorded tours were available in Spanish, French, and English in a few of the larger museums and were very satisfying.
Still, the most satisfactory viewing of a museum’s collection should be accompanied by a real, live person with whom the viewer can interact. English-speaking guides were available at prearranged times. In most cases, however, the guides were not native English speakers, and their tours varied in quality. They were frequently merely memorized recitations of the histories of various Hapsburg or Bavarian monarchies, including endless repetitions of the number of candles in successive chandeliers. Rarely did any interaction take place between guide and tour group; often, the guide was unable or unwilling to answer questions.
Therefore, it was with enormous delight that I encountered Christopher Clouter in the Kunsthistorisches Museum
in Vienna. He and three others volunteered to conduct English tours for the Kunst; he claims to teach English at the American Institute to “support my vocation — art history.”
He began our tour in the magnificent main hall of the ground floor of the 100-year-old art museum. After pointing out the tools of the architect painted over the museum’s entrance and Michaelangelo’s name and the tools of the sculptor over the entrance to the sculpture wing, he let us discover the intent of the other two wings. When he asked, “What do you see in this section over Raphael’s name that tells us he was a painter?” I began to suspect I had found a real docent ╤ a teacher╤ not just another tour guide.
We moved to the “Krumau Madonna” and all marched around the statue while he asked us, “Sculpture is made to be seen on all sides, so why did they make pieces like this to go on the altar where no one would ever see the back?” When we moved to a small ivory carving of “St. Gregory with the Scribes,” he led us into a discussion of why books were so valuable during the Middle Ages and reminded us that we still remember the “magic” of the written language when we “spell” a word.
“When you look at any painting, think how you would have painted the subject,” he urged and then helped us see how Titian leads the viewer to a thematic center of “Ecce Homo,” the figure of Christ at the outermost edge of the huge canvas.
Our tour continued in this vein for more than an hour. The group was very large — more than 30 adults. We saw only a fraction of the vast Kunst collection, but we were treated to an entertaining, enlightening, and enabling introduction. The Kunst became accessible, and we spent 5 more of our precious tourist hours exploring on our own the paths that had been opened for us.
Do European museums do a better job for their foreign visitors than museums in the United States? The question is moot. Far better questions, however, concern your own museum. Do non-English speaking visitors have access to your collection? Has your museum gone beyond print, tape, or guides to provide docent tours for foreign visitors? As a docent, have you made it known to your education director that you are available to give tours in languages other than English? Have you helped recruit into your museum’s docent program volunteers who speak languages other than English? These are the more important questions to consider when providing for these special audiences.
Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor
Littleton, Jackie. “Spricht Hier Jemand English? *Providing for Foreign Visitors: Does Anyone Here Speak English?,” The Docent Educator 2.4 (Summer 1993): 12-13.