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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Getting mobile on Hawai‘i: A visit to the Bishop

So, I’ve touched down on US soil, though I’m still in the middle of the great Pacific. This is the idyllic family holiday before the Fulbright period begins. But I have planned to visit the Bishop Museum to look at their approach to bilingual and bicultural content.

Kailua Beach, Hawai'i, with va'a (canoes) racing in the background, 2015

Kailua Beach, Hawai’i, with va’a (canoes) racing in the background, 2015

Why am I surprised by the degree of Americanisation all the way out here on Oahu, Hawai‘i? Was I expecting the sort of Pacific welcome you get on Sāmoa or Fiji (hardly untainted by tourism)? More Hawaiian faces?

And why, when I come from a land that’s been well and truly Christianised, Colonised, Anglicised, Americanised, and Globalised?

Maybe I’m just looking in the mirror and seeing the long cloud of white people (of which I am one) that now covers much of Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s left me uneasy. Course, I’m in the wrong part of Hawai‘i to experience anything else. Kailua. Shamelessly on vacation.

Visiting the Bishop Museum: A Pacific oasis

The Bishop Museum is a Pacific oasis in the great shopping mall of Honolulu. I’m greeted by the same Pacific gods of home. It still astounds me, the feat of navigation that the Pacific peoples achieved all those centuries ago to settle the islands. No GPS. No compasses. Just the stars and seas and wildlife to guide them.

The ties between all these peoples across thousands of kilometres of ocean remain vivid – in the art, language, ancestors. Here, Tangaroa (Māori god of the sea) is Kanaloa. Rongo (god of agriculture and peace) is Lono. Matariki (Māori New Year) is Makali‘i. T = K. NG = N. R = N. A nifty formula – as if cultural comparisons were that simple.

Hawaiian stories are the focus of the museum (as you’d hope), especially in the recently renovated Hawaiian Hall, which is arranged on three levels according to Hawaiian cosmology.

Hawaiian Hall, Bishop Museum, 2015

Hawaiian Hall, Bishop Museum, 2015

The Pacific Hall takes more of an archaeological view of the wider Pacific. Te Papa tells similar stories, but it’s interesting to receive them via a Hawaiian lens and different, diverse collection items.

Pacific Hall, Bishop Museum, 2015, showing map of settlement of Pacific at back

Pacific Hall, Bishop Museum, Hawai’i, 2015, showing map of settlement of Pacific at back

Mobile audio tours in five languages

Mobile tours sign, Bishop Museum, Hawai'i, 2015Brad Evans, Director of Exhibits and Production, shows me the mobile highlight tours they launched in 2013 – in five languages, including Hawaiian. They offer deeper stories on 40 objects. Budget and time were short (sound familiar?), so they collaborated with university students to record the content.

Read the Bishop Museum intro to the tours

Hawaiian is an official language here, but the Bishop doesn’t have any formal obligation to present content in Hawaiian. Nor is the museum underpinned by a founding agreement like the Treaty of Waitangi (with its principles of partnership, protection, and participation) as Te Papa is.

Chants and quotes are in Hawaiian, but English otherwise dominates the interpretive text. Staff have nevertheless decided to make a commitment to Hawaiian via the mobile tours. Other languages widely spoken by visitors are also available: Japanese, Chinese, and Korean.

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

Web app versus mobile app

The Bishop chose to create the tours on the web, not as a native mobile app, and to embrace BYOD – Bring Your Own Device – because increasingly ‘everyone has a smartphone’. The tours pop up first on the mobile site. They’re audio only, so not too heavy.

The aim is that visitors explore objects rather than screens, so there’s no other multimedia or bells and whistles (eg, bookmarking, commenting, sharing, user-curatorial tools). Would uptake really outweigh the additional costs?

Pros of the web-based approach

  • Visitors don’t need to download a mobile app – the barrier many of us worry about.
  • They can easily access content inside and outside the museum.
    You can listen right now.
  • The museum can do everything cheaply and in-house and therefore doesn’t have to charge for the experience beyond the museum entrance fee.

Other options for delivery?
We talked about the option of using location-based Bluetooth beacon technology to deliver the tours. It hasn’t convinced the Bishop, though Brad describes the current approach as an intermediary one until the technology catches up with needs.

  • Visitors scan a QR code or key in a stop number (as per traditional audio guides) – relevant content isn’t pulled automatically onto their device based on their location.
  • There’s no ‘blue-dot’ wayfinding from stop to stop (though there are still questions around how helpful this really is, and whether printed maps might still be better).
  • The museum monitors website hits (they’ve had more than they expected), and know that the average ‘stay’ is the full length of the audio track. They can’t, however, track how long visitors stay in certain areas of an exhibition or their movements between them, which would (theoretically) allow them to adjust content to meet that behaviour.

Taking the tour

The tours offer interesting stories, and there are five entries for kids, read (but not written) by them. Some of the tracks feel long, and I’d prefer the basic object info to be onscreen rather than recorded (it delays the juicier stuff), but that’s a minor quibble.

The complex story of the 1898 annexation of Hawai‘i (Kū‘e petitions) is an example of track that gives a useful potted history of content that’s difficult to convey in a cohesive way across objects.

I’ll be keen to see how other US organisations are using mobile or wearable devices.

  • Is anyone succeeding in moving beyond the usual audio guide?
  • In what ways are museums encouraging continued interaction with real objects and with other people via mobile offerings (avoiding screen fixation)?
  • Is anyone succeeding in bringing together multimedia mobile experiences with already complex on-floor experiences – or is the competition between those aspects too great? See my blog: Down the rabbit hole with MONA and Melbourne Museum – Part 2.

For museums wanting to create an audio tour on a limited budget, however – and potentially provide more languages, stories, and perspectives – the Bishop’s BYOD, web-based approach is an enormously sensible option.

A holistic museum experience

Brad muses about the possibility of making the whole museum experience more uniquely Hawaiian – the entrance/shop, food, events – not just to appropriately acknowledge the Hawaiian people and history of the islands but also because … well, why else would an international visitor come to a museum in the middle of the Pacific (especially when there’s a free tropical beach just down the road)? The entrance fee is pretty hefty too – but it’s tricky to avoid that if the funding isn’t there.

Bishop Museum entrance and shop, 2015

Bishop Museum entrance and shop, 2015. Room for more of the Hawaiian story and experience here?

I think he’s right. That’s what Te Papa set out to do when it opened – to create something distinctly New Zealand/South Pacific in nature, not emulate the museums of Europe. Which isn’t to say we couldn’t do more in that way … but that’s for another time.

Other cool stuff at the Bishop Museum

The Bishop Museum’s Science Adventure Center, which explores the natural world, has some particularly cool stuff.

Outside of the Science Adventure Center, Bishop Museum, Hawai'i, 2015

Science Adventure Center, Bishop Museum, Hawai’i, 2015

  • Hands-on interactives like the wind generator and tsunami pool. Sure, a digital interactive on tsunamis would be fine, but how much more awesome to actually make the wave yourself? (Lots of other science/tech museums also excel in this regard.)
Tsunami interactive, Bishop Museum, Hawaii, 2015

Tsunami interactive, Bishop Museum, Hawai’i, 2015

  • The volcano in the middle – the use of 3-D space to embody the geography of Hawai‘i and related concepts. Nice lava slide and opportunities for play.
Volcano, Bishop Museum, Hawai'i, 2015

Volcano, Bishop Museum, Hawai’i, 2015

Lava slide, Bishop Museum, Hawai'i, 2015

Lava slide, Bishop Museum, Hawai’i, 2015

  • Drawers full of butterflies. And rats. Always good.

2015-06-18 16.34.41 2015-06-18 16.40.22

  • The deep-sea dive digital interactive.

There’s also a nice temporary show on Hawaiian weaving, with a fun hat interactive.

Hat interactive, Bishop Museum, Hawai'i, 2015

Hat interactive, Bishop Museum, Hawai’i, 2015

Back to reality

My cellphone runs out mid afternoon, and suddenly I’m glad to be ‘back in the States’ with a Starbucks around the corner where I can recharge. Now there’s the rub.

The Bishop Museum: 21.3000° N, 157.8167° W. It’s worth a look next time you’re traversing the Pacific. And if you’d rather slow-cook yourself on the beach, then bring a metal detector – it’s amazing how many people are out there hunting for treasure. I guess you never know what fragments of history might be buried in the sand.

A man hunts for treasure on the beach with a metal detector

Hunting for treasure

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