How can museums help revive indigenous languages?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about our responsibility as museums to our communities and cultures, and particularly to reviving indigenous languages. Being in Hawai‘i brings it all home.

Hawaiian is an official language here, but its vital stats are looking pretty grim. The indigenous language was banned from schools in 1896, as Māori was in Aotearoa New Zealand in the 1860s. That and multiple other policies and events since have made a right mess of things.

UNESCO’s atlas of endangered languages rates Hawaiian as critically endangered, Māori as vulnerable. If you’re not a numbers person, take a moment to absorb that piece of information, skip the stats, and go to Lou’s story further down.

Screenshot 2015-06-28 09.01.23Screenshot 2015-06-28 08.59.14

Hawaiian language stats and a comparison with Māori

In 2000, UNESCO put Hawaiian speakers at 1,000 (not even 0.1% of the population) and Māori speakers at 70,000 (less than 2% of the population). But the stats seem to differ wherever you look.

  • 2006–08 US census statistics put speakers of Hawaiian at around 24,000. That’s still a fraction of the then 1.3 million population – under 2%.
  • 2013 NZ census stats put Māori speakers at 148,395, or 3.3% of the country’s almost 4.5 million people.
  • 2006–08 figures also show that Hawaiian speakers on the islands are outnumbered by those not only of English but also of Tagalog (Philippines), Japanese, Ilocano (Philippines), Chinese, and Spanish, and on a par with Korean. These figures focus on the speaking of ‘other’ languages in relation to competency in English – as if bilingualism might be somehow detrimental.
  • 2013 census figures lump numbers of Pacific peoples in Hawai‘i together – at 10% – with no reference to Hawaiians as a distinct group.

It’s all a bit depressing really, but as in Aotearoa New Zealand, revival efforts (like immersion schools) have been pulling the language back from the brink. In Kailua, I’m not in the right place to see those efforts, but they’re certainly there.

Hawaiian Renaissance Movement display, Bishop Museum, 2015

Hawaiian Renaissance Movement display, Bishop Museum, 2015

Lou’s story on learning the language

Still, I encountered a woman on the beach the other day who’s passionate about the Hawaiian language. Let’s call her Lou. She’s not Hawaiian, but her family’s fourth or fifth generation. She told me about the first time she heard the language – in a shop in a village, when she was already in her late teens. She stayed reading the back of a can of beans, just so she could listen to the two old men chatting for a little bit longer. She fell in love with the sound.

Lou’s in her 60s now and has been attempting to learn since her 30s, but she says she feels ‘iced out’ whenever she tries. Now I don’t really know Lou, but I could tell her interest was genuine at least. She was clearly cut up about it all. One of her early teachers – an elder Hawaiian woman – was supportive but told her that if she wanted to continue learning, she’d need to pretend she was native Hawaiian, not Haole (of European descent). But Lou couldn’t do it.

Who knows if that teacher was serious, but it’s kind of tempting to make a connection with the recent uproar in the US around Rachel Dolezal pretending to be black. And not only that but heading a black civil rights group. Truly bizarre. Here’s Maya Rudolph doing her impression of Dolezal on Saturday Night Live. (In a former life when I studied film with Maya at UCSC, she made a hilarious short about taming her own afro, so this one’s working on multiple levels for me.)

And here’s the longer story on Rachel Dolezal.

This is an extreme case of cultural appropriation, sure, but it raises an interesting question around boundaries and what is and isn’t acceptable. But back to the language …

Learning Māori

I feel lucky that at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, where I’ve done classes in Māori, I’ve been welcomed by teachers and students alike, and that I’ve had the opportunity to learn at Te Papa as well. That generosity of spirit is remarkable, given the history of our nation.

I’m also familiar with the discomfort of learning as a Pākehā (New Zealander of European descent), but I’m not going to pretend I’m in any way unfortunate to be in that position. What’s a little discomfort compared to decades of privilege and preferential treatment? I’m a non-Māori New Zealander. I’m acutely aware of the inequalities that continue in our country, of the power relationships, and of the wrongs committed in the past. It’s not OK.

But how do we get beyond that? Can Pākehā be part of the revival of the language and culture? And if so, what’s the appropriate role to play? I still don’t know the answer to that – and yet I feel compelled to explore this territory as part of my Fulbright.

So where do museums come in?

Over the past few years, Te Papa has been aiming for fully bilingual content wherever space permits.

Treaty of Waitangi exhibition label, Te Papa, 2015

Treaty of Waitangi exhibition label, Te Papa, 2015

We’ve been targeting a fairly fluent audience in doing that. There are those who would argue against this approach. ‘Why,’ they ask, ‘when just 3% of the population speak Māori, and when only a fraction of those people come into the museum, and when we end up crowding the walls with text?’

Bilingual Sounding Board in the Arts Studio, Te Papa, 2015

Bilingual Sounding Board in the Arts Studio, Te Papa, 2015

Family Trail label in Māori, Arts Te Papa, 2014

Family Trail label in Māori, Arts Te Papa, 2014

Family Trail label in English, Arts Te Papa, 2014

Family Trail label in English, Arts Te Papa, 2014

Well, I guess if we don’t, we give up. Are we prepared for that loss? And isn’t this one of those ‘big things’ museums are here for? Shouldn’t we be using our collections to solve some of the real problems facing the country and world? Isn’t it worrying that we’re even asking the question of whether to create content in Māori or not?

And then there’s the finding of the 2013 Bilingual Exhibit Research Initiative (BERI) in the US about the profoundly positive effect that bilingual content can have on visitors’ emotional connection to a museum. (See Steve Yalowitz’s guest post about this on Nina Simon’s blog.)

For me, it’s about coming up with solutions that support learning and revival and that still achieve an effective visitor experience for all. (Digital platforms have obvious benefits where space is limited.) But there are questions about the audience – do we have to rethink our approach? It’s true that the vast majority of our audience don’t speak Māori. But …

  • What if we see them as potential speakers rather than non speakers?
  • What if we aim to inspire them to learn?
  • What technologies might help us?
  • What digital tools and other support might they need?
  • And how do we balance their needs with those of fluent speakers wanting the full story in their language?

Big questions. No easy answers. But I’m hoping US and Canadian museums can provide some ideas around the delivery of multiple languages.

Back to Lou

When I leave Lou, she gives me a warm hug and digs around for something to write her details on. She can’t find anything, so instead she hands me a religious flyer with her email on it. Christ died so that I could be saved, it tells me. I feel myself flinch. ‘We’re believers,’ she smiles, ‘but I’m only giving you this because I can’t find a pen.’

I think of my grandmother – a committed atheist who would nevertheless happily debate for hours with anyone, including the Mormons at the door. The people she couldn’t abide were those without an opinion. ‘I don’t mind what you think,’ she’d say, ‘as long as you have an opinion.’

So there you go. I’d be interested in yours.

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2 Responses to How can museums help revive indigenous languages?

  1. Pingback: Getting mobile on Hawai‘i – a visit to the Bishop | MUSE-UM … Musings on museums, multimedia, multiple perspectives & more

  2. Pingback: side-bHighlight 3: Bilingual ‘story theatre’ at San Diego Natural History Museum | MUSE-UM … Musings on museums, storytelling, multimedia, and more

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