A bust of Robert Burns. The new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum has incorporated Scots dialect throughout its exhibition space

Mind your language

Rebecca Atkinson, Issue 110/12, p22-27, 01.12.2010
The extensive use of Scots at the new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum raises questions about how language can be used in museums. By Rebecca Atkinson

“They took nae pains their speech to balance, or rules to gie; but spak their thoughts in plain, braid lallans, like you or me.” So wrote Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns in his Epistle To William Simson poem in 1785, referring to the use of the Scots language by the people.

As a poet who wrote in Scots and championed its use, it’s little surprise that the museum designed to hold the most significant collection of artefacts, manuscripts and memorabilia relating to the bard will use this vernacular.

What has caused a few raised eyebrows, however, is the extent to which the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Ayrshire, which opens this month, intends to use Scots in its interpretation. While display cases will have individual object labels written in English, all interpretation text on the walls will be in Scots.

“Burns understood the relevance and importance of the Scots language, and championed introducing it to people, so we felt we couldn’t tell his story without tackling Scots head on,” says the museum’s director, Nat Edwards.

However, consultation with the public and museum professionals revealed some concerns that this approach might create a barrier to access.

“Some people felt that museums had weaned themselves off ‘academic museum speak’ and finally developed accessible text, and that using Scots would make things harder,” says Edwards. “We had to demonstrate that it doesn’t matter if you don’t understand every word, as long as the story is there.”

More surprising to Edwards was the reaction from some of his peers that Scots was “infantile” – a language for children. This, he says, shows the extent to which language is integral to class and politics. “People have hung on to Scots, despite efforts to indoctrinate them against it,” he adds. “Museums should be supporting that rather than adding to the problem.”

Scots is widely spoken across Scotland, but whether it is a language in its own right, or a dialect, is hotly debated. Although primarily a spoken language, it has a strong literary tradition that is being continued by authors such as James Robertson and Irvine Welsh.

Edwards says the museum’s mission is not to revive Scots, but rather to make sure that people who use it habitually can see it employed in a museum space and understand its importance. He hopes that non-Scots speakers will leave with a curiosity about the language and a sense of its strong literary tradition.

Linguistic awareness

Increasing the awareness of other languages spoken in the UK is gaining currency in museums and beyond. While there is no official data relating to the number of languages (indigenous or otherwise) spoken in the UK, the Office for National Statistics, in recognition of linguistic diversity, will include a language question in the 2011 census. The UK is thought to have 12 native languages, of which two – Cornish and Manx – have been revived in the past 100 years.

Staff at the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro are thinking about introducing words from Cornish into the galleries, although director Hilary Bracegirdle says this will happen only following consultation and within an overall interpretation strategy. 

Cornish is believed to have died out as a first language in 1777, and was declared “extinct” by Unesco linguistic experts last year. But the Cornish Language Partnership claims the number of speakers has increased over the past 20 years. The use of Cornish has also become a political issue as a result of a growing nationalist movement within the region.

Bracegirdle doesn’t think museums should shy away from confronting such controversial issues: “To ignore the fact that this language exists is to ignore part of Cornish culture. It’s important that people realise that Cornwall is different – and the language is evidence of its culture.”

Museums take different approaches to using native languages. While the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum might regard the use of Scots as essential, elsewhere in Scotland museums tend to use Scots and Gaelic either selectively or as part of a bilingual approach.

Inverness Museum and Art Gallery offers bilingual interpretation panels and signage, while the Portsoy Salmon Bothy in Banffshire uses the odd word of Doric, the dialect spoken in the north east of Scotland, on its tours.

“This can really help to bring a language to life but in a very accessible way,” says Joanne Orr, chief executive of Museums Galleries Scotland. “It can give visitors a sense of the lyrical and expressive nature of another language.” 

Bracegirdle is also in favour of using Cornish words “subtly”. Although admitting this could be seen as a token gesture, she argues that the intermittent use of a language can help raise awareness without forcing it on people.

This is not an issue in Wales, where museums are legally required to put Welsh on an equal footing with English. The 1993 Welsh Language Act means public bodies are required to offer bilingual provision, and museum professionals are equally positive about using more than one language across all written text for the public.

Robin Gwyn, director of communications at Amgueddfa Cymru, National Museum Wales (NMW), believes museums have a duty to reflect the heritage – including the language – of a country. 

In most cases, the Welsh language – which is spoken by 20% of the population – is written at the top or the left-hand side of NMW’s printed material. “The logic behind this is that most Welsh speakers can also read and write in English,” says Gwyn. “If they’ve already read the text in English, though, it makes it obsolete to have a Welsh translation.”

Bilingual challenges

While the use of two languages has almost become second nature for Welsh museums, it presents challenges. “[A bilingual approach] forces you to think about the length of documents and the amount of text required, and encourages people involved in producing anything written to be concise and clear,” says Gwyn.

There is also a cost issue. As well as the salaries of two full-time translators, NMW must produce twice as much literature than if it was required to use only one language in written communications. However, costs have been reduced by using digital technology.

“This means getting material available online, where users can choose whether to switch from English to Welsh on every page, rather than printing it as leaflets,” says Gwyn.

Ensuring that people understand what your museum is doing is key to implementing a bilingual approach successfully. “It’s about fostering a culture of respect and mutual understanding, not intimidation or alienation,” says Gwyn. “Wales is a bilingual country and using English and Welsh is part of the natural order of things.”

Getting staff on board is also important. NMW provides language-awareness training and supports staff who want or need to learn Welsh. There are no such requirements for internal communications to be in both languages. At NMW, the language used depends on the percentage of Welsh speakers in a workplace.

At the National Slate Museum in Llanberis, staff speak to each other in Welsh. Again, advances in technology have made things easier. NMW trustee meetings are conducted in a mix of Welsh and English, with instant translations provided via headphones.

As far as logistics are concerned, featuring other languages in the museum requires additional planning. For the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, developing panels in Scots was a lengthy process. Scottish author James Robertson was brought in to write the text, with guidance from staff. The idea was to mimic Burns’s use of the language, while making sure the main message remains clear.

Despite the panels being relatively short, Edwards says getting the pitch of Scots right took months. “The language is not archaic, academic or slang, but serious Scots with a modern voice,” he says. Edwards is adamant that even non-Scots speakers will understand the text: “Scots is similar to English when written, and it’s amazing how quickly people pick it up.”

Scots words feature across the whole museum, which will help familiarise visitors with the language. There is a giant installation in the grounds featuring Scots words, while the cafe windows are inscribed with a glossary of terms.

The use of indigenous UK languages and dialects in museums will continue to spark debate. Edwards accepts that some visitors to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum might feel the use of Scots doesn’t fit into the “expected model of a traditional museum”.

But he is confident that the use of Scots in the museum will have a positive impact on most visitors. “A lot of Scottish people feel their culture is held in pretty low esteem.

To see one of their own celebrated as a literary icon, someone who speaks the same language as them, should help them hold their heads higher. That is what’s important to us.”

Improving access

Museums in ethnically diverse areas of the UK, meanwhile, are introducing foreign languages. The V&A’s Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, east London, has offered introductory text to its two main galleries in Bengali and Somali, as well as English, since 2006.

Stephen Nicholls, exhibitions manager at the museum, says introducing different languages has helped to reaffirm its presence in a diverse community and improve access to a wide range of audiences. While informal feedback has been positive, it has highlighted an issue with illiteracy among some visitors.

Nicholls says this suggests offering interpretation in different languages through audio technology might be more effective than written text. However, budget constraints and the need for more evaluation have so far ruled out such developments. The use of language is a visual acknowledgement of a broader audience, but Nicholls says it is only useful to visitors if they come through the doors in the first place.

“The most effective way of building new audiences is through going out and working with different community groups on projects, not just changing text in galleries,” he says.

Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Ayrshire, cost £21m and opens to the public this month.

It is the largest project the National Trust for Scotland has ever undertaken. Funding has come from the Heritage Lottery Fund (£8.6m), Scottish government (£7.6m), Scottish Enterprise (£250,000) and South Ayrshire Council, which has given land estimated to be worth £2.9m.

The museum will house 5,000 artefacts, manuscripts and items of memorabilia related to Burns. Interpretation has been led by museum director Nat Edwards and project curator David Hopes. Scottish author James Robertson was brought in to help write the gallery text.

The project will link the museum to all the Alloway sites with a Burns connection: the Burns Monument, Alloway Auld Kirk, Burns Cottage and Auld Brig O’Doon.