Clare Brown was the Chief of Design at the Smithsonian Museum of American History when Anthea Hartig took over the role of director in 2019. When Dr. Hartig opened up her introduction speech to the staff in Spanish, Clare knew that there was a big change coming to the old institution. Dr. Hartig later laid out her vision for all new projects to be completed in bilingual Spanish and English text. It is important for all Americans to access information on American history in their own language. While design teams might applaud the motivations of multilingual design, what does it mean for the process and where do you even start?
Clare’s experience is one that I have been envisioning for a long time- if institutions around America would declare their commitment to linguistic accessibility, what would happen? How would designers tackle this challenge? Clare started off with a barrier that exists more in object based history museums than art museums: the scale of object versus wall text. In history museums, “interpretation often overpowers objects.” One spoon in a Julia Child exhibition could be placed in front of two huge paragraphs about the story behind it. With the inclusion of bilingual wall texts, suddenly there is a new design problem with doubling the size of the label.
Her team immediately started bookmarking best practices for bilingual design, and playing with digital overlays or wall text alternatives. Going down the rabbit hole of design alternatives, Clare was more caught by the idea of intention in the gallery. “As a designer, we need to understand the intention to make the right solution.” Is it possible for them to even present multilingual text in a way that multilingual speakers process language? The interpretation in museums might look radically different if museums focus on presenting meaning rather than direct interpretation.
Clare sets up the process for designers in two disarmingly simple steps:
- Understand the intention and why you are designing this way
- Make smart choices to support the why
Throughout the conversation, a common theme was the various motivations of museums in including multilingual design in their galleries. In a national museum that declares it contains all American history, the intention of welcoming visitors from all backgrounds in America is clear. But in other parts of the country, why would they cater to bilingual visitors? Maybe just for shows that include Spanish artists or Mexican archaeology. And Chinese museums have completely different motivations for including English text, as it is clear that they only need English for outside visitors.
Clare and I had an amazing conversation, and I hope to cut together clips from it in the coming weeks. As my second official interview, many of the practical pieces of advice and more conceptual musings that she offered can be found in future interviews with other designers. Thank you Clare for your time!