Print Page   |   Sign In   |   Join
News & Press: Capacity Building

Museum-Speak As A Second Language

Friday, July 25, 2014   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Karen Stark
Share |

I heard a saying once that I am finding more and more true: “You are never as smart in a language learned in middle age.” My daughter recently completed a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Spain. Before her call, I promised her that if she was called to a Spanish speaking mission I would try to learn Spanish. I spent 18 months attempting to learn Spanish on my own. Upon our daughter’s release, my husband and I traveled to Spain to pick her up. I was able to decipher signs and catch the drift of conversations until people got talking too fast -which was most of the time. I am sure my attempts to make any comments in Spanish left me sounding like an idiot.

Learning Professional Languages

It is understood that learning a second language is much easier for young people. Learning a professional language usually takes place in an academic setting among younger people as well. Many of the people working in our small museums are older, often retired from careers in other professions. They have had no formal museum education, though they may have extensive training and experience in a totally unrelated field. My exposure to museum-speak began, not before my first experience working in a museum, or even during my first years working at a museum, but with the first Utah Museums (UMA) Conference I attended. I admit that I wasn’t always sure what was meant by terms being used, and I did become more familiar through attending more workshops and conferences. But I also was not about to look the fool by asking “what does that mean?” in the midst of a room full of  professionals.

Becoming familiar with and even using terminology is not always accompanied by a good understanding of concepts and practices. My first museum experience was being a docent, which is one museum term regularly used in the museum field. I came to realize that being a docent for many meant sitting by the door knitting and greeting visitors as they came in the museum. Through the Museum Interpretive Initiative (MII), we completed an exhibit in our museum. This term had not been used much at the museum I was at, but after the MII, it began to be used to refer to previous displays of objects which hardly fit the definition of an exhibit.

Many people come to be employed in professional museums without a degree in Museum Studies, but have other professional training closely aligned with the museum world. They may need to learn museum-speak as well, but they have had the advantage of being immersed in a professional environment where museum- speak is spoken fluently and constantly. They are also immersed in an environment where best practices are followed and can be modeled. (Admittedly some organizations do better than others) They receive some on-the-job training from mentors with knowledge of the job and the language.

Teaching Each Other

Volunteers often come to small museums because of an interest in or passion for local history. The language used in these museums is rather casual and often more in line with the historical or religious organizations that these people belong to. Not only is museum-speak not used, but many of the functions and practices the museum-speak terminology refers to are non-existent in these museums. Museum volunteers, who are generally intelligent and capable people, may find themselves in an environment where a foreign language is spoken when they come to their first UMA Conference.

After spending years doing extensive genealogical research, I thought it would be beneficial to share some significant discoveries I had made. I put a great deal of time and effort into writing an article which was published in the journal of a Genealogical Society. I was fortunate to have a wonderful mentor who was a professional genealogist and published author. She guided me through this process and made sure that my language, format, and documentation met professional standards.

I also wrote a rather lengthy comprehensive family genealogy book. Like this article, I wanted this book to be acceptable to professional genealogists, but I had another audience in mind as well – my family members, who cover a wide range of ages, education, experience, and genealogical knowledge. It was a challenge to write something that could be understood and appreciated by all.

Because our Utah Museum community consists of untrained, inexperienced volunteers as well as seasoned museum professionals, it is important that we all remember that we are addressing a widely varied audience for our articles, workshops, and UMA conference sessions. Some may bristle at the thought that they should be expected to dummy down a professional presentation. Rather than dummy down a presentation, we can use these opportunities to educate each another. We can strive to create working descriptions of museum terms and practices that everyone can access. Once we let go of the assumption that everyone should understand the language as we do and know all that we know, education within our museum community can take place. Even if we think a question we have might be perceived as stupid, there is a very good chance someone else has the same question. As we ask questions, discussions can thrive and we can foster a learning museum community.

Volunteers and others who find themselves working in the museum world have a responsibility to learn the language and make the effort to become part of this professional community. They need to work to understand and adapt principles and practices to their situations. Good mentors, those who have a thorough knowledge of museum-speak, can play a critical role in making this happen. I doubt my genealogical article would have been published without the help of my mentor. Likewise, I am sure my Spanish would be much better if I had a native-speaking tutor.

As part of our Conference 101 to orient newcomers to our 2014 UMA Conference in Cedar City, we are developing a Museum Glossary with definitions and descriptions of museum terms and practices. We welcome input from all of you in our museum community. If there are terms that were unfamiliar or confusing to you or to others in your museums, please let me know so we can address those! If you happen to have good definitions or descriptions that have been helpful, please share those as well. Feel free to email me with any input you have

As one who has made an effort to become bi-lingual, but doesn’t yet feel fluent in the new language, I hope that this Glossary and Conference 101 will be a good step toward integrating new members into our UMA community.


Karen Stark works with the Utah Humanities Council as the Museum on Main Street Program Assistant. Karen is a member of the UMA Board and is a passionate advocate for small museums incorporating engaging and professional museum practices.

Association Management Software Powered by YourMembership  ::  Legal