Highlight 3: Bilingual ‘story theatre’ at San Diego Natural History Museum

Highlights intro & index

Southern California, summer, 2015

It’s one of those hot July days in downtown LA, when all the colour’s drained from the world. We’re caring for our sick daughter in a cheap hotel smelling of toilet cleaner, musty carpet, and smoke. My partner slips out to grab us a quick bite. He comes back gob-smacked to discover that everyone is speaking Spanish on the street, and that burritos – at least in their Tex Mex form – are not, in fact, traditionally Mexican.

Burrito. Photograph by anna.xie (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Photograph by anna.xie (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I’m dying to go exploring. Eat rice, beans, and plátano. Put my rusty Spanish to the test. Now’s not the time, but I’ll soon have lots of opportunities. Welcome to Southern California.

TheNAT: Innovative, bilingual, multimedia storytelling

The San Diego Natural History Museum (theNAT) in Balboa Park is one of a growing number of US museums seeking to better represent their communities, and that means using more Spanish.

San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Latino/Hispanic people are now the biggest ethnic group in California. In San Diego County, 33% of the population are Latino, and in LA, that figure is 48.4% – likely to be a majority by 2020. In New York, the proportion is now 18.6% (all figures from US Census, 2014), but East Coast museums seem to be taking longer to catch up with the increase.

In Coast to Cactus in Southern California, the NAT’s latest permanent exhibition, they’re mixing things up a bit. Desert at Night, an immersive story-theatre experience, features Spanglish, the blend of Spanish and English often used in Southern California. In that sense, it’s entirely natural and normal. But sometimes the obvious and the innovative go hand in hand. In the museum world, I’ve never encountered an experience that merges languages, storytelling/theatre, science, and digital media in quite the same way.

At Te Papa, we’ve been talking about taking a theatrical, blended approach, so Desert at Night is a bit of a ‘Bingo!’ moment for me, particularly in terms of what it might offer for language learning.

Jump to Potential for Te Papa

Quieres go camping en el desert?

Here’s an Airstream Bambi trailer, full of items collected from the desert. Go behind it and you’ll find yourself on holiday with a Latino family.

Airstream Bambi camper van in Coast to Cactus, San Diego Museum of Natural History, 2015

Airstream Bambi campervan in Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

The sun’s gone down. The stars are out. Crickets are chirping. You see the projected shadows of two children in a tent.

Screenshot 2015-10-07 20.32.14

Desert at Night in Coast to Cactus, 2015. Photograph by San Diego Natural History Museum

The kids are cousins and, as they get ready for bed, they talk about the wildlife in the desert – at the same time as it comes to life.

Snake project in Desert at Night in Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Desert at Night in Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

They move fluidly between English and Spanish. The girl is older and knows more; the boy bursting with questions – perfect narrators to connect with the young target audience.

For New Zealand audiences, I’d pull the acting back a few notches, but that’s a minor quibble. I’m interested in what’s at the core, not so much the particular expression.

Here’s Desert at Night on YouTube. (Go to 2:30 for the animated sequence.)

More on Desert at Night: ‘Press 1 for Spanglish’ by Elizabeth Salaam

The Bilingual Exhibit Research Initiative (BERI)

Let’s go back in time for a moment – to the research that inspired theNAT’s experimentation with Spanglish.

The 2013 Bilingual Exhibit Research Initiative (BERI) explored Spanish-speaking visitors’ uses and perceptions of four bilingual exhibitions in San Diego (theNAT), Portland, Houston, and Miami. Some key findings:

  1. Most visitors used both Spanish and English text, though the extent to which they did this varied across the four sites.
  2. Most ‘code switched’ in their conversations, moving freely between the two languages. In other words, they spoke Spanglish.
  3. Adults (parents, grandparents, caregivers) often used the Spanish text to facilitate learning with their children.
  4. Spanish content made Latino people feel welcome and empowered.
  5. The bilingual content also made non-Spanish-speaking visitors feel more connected to the museum. (This is the most interesting finding for me – that representing one community can make other communities feel more at home too.)

Spanglish: Inspiring interest, learning by listening

TheNAT has embedded the finding about code switching (2) into Desert at Night, creating a welcoming, natural language-learning opportunity by doing so.

The script (which involved a team of writers and more than 30 iterations) repeats ideas in ways that don’t feel repetitive. If you speak only one language, you get the gist. But if you want to learn, listen a little closer.

Ringtail projection, Desert at Night, Coast to Cactus, 2015. Photograph by San Diego Natural History Museum

Image (detail) by San Diego Natural History Museum

Images help you along. As the young boy imagines the animals that his cousin describes, they appear in the sky. Take the ringtail. ‘Really huge ears?’ he asks, and large ones appear. ‘No, no tan grandes, like the size of a fox’s ears,’ she replies, and zap, they shrink. Great visual support for learning about science and language simultaneously.

Potential for Te Papa – fact via fiction

The cultural context in Aotearoa New Zealand is of course radically different from that in Southern California. Te reo Māori (the Māori language), which Te Papa is aiming to use more in exhibitions, is an indigenous rather than migrant language, and the challenge is one of language/cultural revitalisation as much as community representation.

Since the 1980s, innovative revival efforts have increased levels of te reo, to the point where around 21% of Māori now speak the language. But many of them are over 65, and only 3.3% of the total population speak, so there’s still work to be done (2013 NZ census stats). As NZHistory says, ‘To remain viable as a language, Māori needs a critical mass of fluent speakers of all ages, and it needs the respect and support of the wider English-speaking and multi-ethnic New Zealand community.’ That’s where major institutions like Te Papa have to take a lead.

Despite the differences in context, the bilingual strategies used in the US, and particularly the theatrical, mixed-language approaches, have great potential in New Zealand. Te Papa showcases Māori culture through many striking exhibitions (eg, Kahu Ora | Living Cloaks) and events (eg, Kaumatua Kapa Haka). Within them:

  • we’re increasing the extent of bilingual text, moving beyond upper-level labels
  • we translate for meaning rather than directly, and write in parallel where possible, involving our communities
  • Māori content sometimes expresses quite different perspectives from the English.

But we could do more interpretively. Like most museums in the US, we’ve largely separated the languages until now. Where we incorporate Māori into English text, we do so in a fairly straightforward way, eg, ‘This kaitaka (fine-flax cloak) carries the mana (authority or prestige) of its chiefly owners.’ Otherwise, you see bilingual labels side by side. You choose between audio tracks. We pare back the content to fit everything in.

By comparison, Desert at Night says: ‘This language is a vital aspect of our daily life, and you could be part of this world.’ There’s a sense of conversation and connection.

Fiction and theatre – including via live, face-to-face encounters (kanohi ki te kanohi) – open up opportunities to extend people’s experience of ideas and language in a more compelling, creative, and perhaps comfortable way. And that’s certainly being done in other environments in NZ, eg, on television (Tōku Reo on Māori TV), in books and songs, and on the stage. The play Paniora (2014), by Briar Grace-Smith, mixed Māori, English, and Spanish.

It suddenly strikes me as odd that we museums haven’t explored this territory more.

Would doing so reflect our current reality, or be aspirational? A bit of both. Many New Zealanders already mix Māori and English in daily speech, some more than others. At a basic level, you might hear: ‘How’s your whānau?’ (How’s your family?) Beyond that, maybe: ‘Ka haere au i te movies.’ (I’m off to the movies.) And so on. Just go to a kindergarten to see how this is becoming more common: ‘Horoia ō ringaringa – wash your hands.’ So this is all about expanding the arenas in which Māori is an expected, familiar part of the conversation to help inspire a desire to learn.

Three approaches to bilingualism

Back to Coast to Cactus for a moment. You can’t use theatre everywhere, of course, and the exhibition takes three approaches to bilingualism overall, two of them more traditional.

  1. Spanglish (as above)
  2. English and Spanish text alongside one another in both labels and multimedia components

    Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

    Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

  3. Separate English and Spanish (for one particular digital interactive on a vertical screen). See the ‘Español’ button, bottom right.

    Bilingual digital interactive, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

    Bilingual digital interactive, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Side-by-side presentation (2) is predominant. This is linked to the BERI finding that most visitors use English and Spanish at the same time. Other organisations are making the same call, including the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (also part of BERI) and Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Bilingual label, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Bilingual label, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

As Senior Exhibit Developer Erica Kelly notes, any family group may contain varying degrees of language proficiency, eg:

  • Spanish-speaking grandparents who know little English
  • parents who speak both proficiently
  • children who speak primarily English.

Displaying the two languages simultaneously supports them all. It isn’t just about representing the languages; it’s about ensuring that everyone feels competent in the museum. And it’s about facilitating social interaction, eg, helping grandparents answer the questions of their grandkids.

Summative evaluation

Summative evaluation of Coast to Cactus by Randi Korn & Associates has backed up the BERI findings, revealing positive responses to the bilingual interpretation, ‘with an overall preference for the side-by-side presentation’. Unpicking that a bit:

  • ‘Toggle languages: Preferred delivery for native Spanish-speakers who are most comfortable in Spanish.’
  • ‘Side-by-side presentation: Preferred delivery for many because one can (1) check authenticity of translation and (2) move between the two depending on comfort.’
  • ‘Spanglish: Preferred delivery by San Diego residents, but not native Spanish-speakers.’ This ‘smaller but very vocal group … felt strongly connected to the Spanglish interpretative approach’.

Of all the components, Desert at Night ‘had … the highest percent of visitors to stop and … the second highest median time spent’.

‘The study concludes that ‘theNAT should consider using the side-by-side interpretation technique as a model for exhibitions in the future, as well as Spanglish interpretation as appropriate’.

Tackling text overload

And the thorny question of text overload, which comes with side-by-side presentation …?

TheNAT has done a pretty good job of paring back key messages and visually differentiating the content so that the overall effect isn’t too overwhelming. They’ve also made good use of images rather than text where possible.

Bilingual label in Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Bilingual content, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

But it’s hard to ignore that adding languages increases complexity and can be visually daunting. It presents a design and UX challenge.

Bilingual content, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Bilingual content, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Other points to note from the summative evaluation:

  • Coast to Cactus ‘has a lot of content and visitors spent a modest amount of time in the exhibition’ – around 13 to 15 minutes (the same as in other exhibitions)
  • ‘The … amount of text became distracting for a few.’
  • ‘The toggle-back-and-forth interpretation was more aesthetically pleasing to a few since it meant less text was visible.’
  • ‘The Coastal Wetlands section [which had a considerable amount of text]  … had a low dwell time (the second lowest).’ This was the case despite its central location.
Bilingual label rail, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Bilingual label rail, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

We know that when there’s lots of text, visitors are less likely to engage with the content, and we need to keep that overall visitor experience firmly in mind. Most museums haven’t gotten to grips with the issue of too much text, particularly in history and science exhibits. (In art, there’s more room.) Take these labels from a touring exhibition at theNAT but created elsewhere, Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed.

Bilingual label rail, Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed exhibition, 2015

Bilingual label rail, Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed exhibition, 2015

Bilingual label rail, Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed exhibition, 2015

Bilingual label rail, Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed exhibition, 2015

I’ve long seen digital media as offering an opportunity to avoid text overload. For that reason, I’m intrigued by theNAT’s decision to default to simultaneous presentation in the digital context – though of course it makes sense in relation to the BERI findings.

'Where are we?' bilingual digital interactive, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Bilingual digital interactive, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Back to NZ

In this area, the design solutions in Aotearoa New Zealand may differ from those here. Unlike US Spanish speakers, all speakers of Māori understand English. Do they still want/need the languages side by side? Would English speakers interested in learning Māori prefer parallel presentation? Can we cater to everyone’s needs?

TheNAT has identified a difference between ‘language purists’ (typically born south of the border) and those who embrace Spanglish (typically born north of the border). Do similar ‘camps’ exist in Aotearoa New Zealand?

I’m keen to test approaches like those below (not everywhere but in some situations):

  • The top levels of content (engaging introductions/teasers, key messages/quotes) are presented on physical substrates or cut vinyl, in both languages, side by side – ideally higher than other content. Like ‘Coral Reefs’ and ‘Reef Partnerships’ below, but bilingual.

    Physical and digital labels, California Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2015

    Physical labels (top) and digital labels (the small ones to the right of the tanks), California Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2015

  • The next one or two levels are presented as separate languages on digital substrates (ie, tablets), with a toggle between the two – ideally close to objects, with the screen design replicating the display. As below (and above – see the small screens), but bilingual.

    Digital labels, First Peoples exhibition, Melbourne Museum, 2015

    Digital labels, First Peoples exhibition, Melbourne Museum, 2015

  • Visitors can override the default setting and see the languages side by side if they want. They can also access simple tools (audio/text) to hear the language and unpack key aspects (eg, words, metaphors) – enough to pique interest but no more. A bit like on an e-reader, but simpler.


These solutions might help alleviate the concern that ‘the toggle-back-and-forth approach does not support language learning’ (Coast to Cactus summative evaluation).

High time to test

It all comes down to setting our aims around the languages we use, identifying our target audiences, and then – primarily – researching what they need.

Another finding of the BERI report is that many US organisations already creating bilingual text aren’t evaluating how their visitors are engaging with it (unlike theNAT). At the moment, Te Papa falls into this category, but we know we need to change that. We need to involve Māori teachers and other experts too.

The bilingual story room in Coast to Cactus

The story room 
in Coast to Cactus also deserves mention. It takes a fictional, bilingual approach to the topic of the wildfire season. The story unfolds via a poetic, physically interactive wall mural. Sit on the rock in the centre. Crawl in and out of the ‘caves’ in the walls as you listen to the story.

Imagine these ideas conveyed via straight text panels. This approach is more meaningful and memorable – and not just for the young audience. Interestingly, only this space and Desert at Night were assessed as both ‘high attraction and engagement’ in the summative evaluation.

TheNAT is helping to point the way to more powerful bilingual experiences for all our visitors.

Wildfire Season story room, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Wildfire Season story room, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Thanks to Beth Redmond-Jones for the great conversation, Judy Rand for connecting me (and for the equally illuminating chat), and Senior Exhibit Developer Erica Kelly for her thoughts.

Big ticks
Emotional connection, social connection, less is more, real stuff

Looking for guidelines around creating bilingual content?

See my blog: How can museums help revive indigenous languages?

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