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  • Writer's pictureCait McQuade

When visitors speak many languages

We heard all kinds of languages while walking around Amsterdam! Lots of English, with many different accents. Dutch, of course. Others I could recognize and some I couldn't even guess about. The city's museums have to plan for visitors from all over the world.

Audio Guides

Many of the museums we visited in the Netherlands use an audio guide system with small triggering devices mounted to the walls or stanchions. Visitors carried audio players that had been keyed to their language at the start.

Holding my player near the wall-mounted device triggered the interpretation for that spot in English. A Dutch-speaking visitor next to me got the same message in her language. In some cases, as here in the Museum of Amsterdam [>], the audio synced with a video.

  • Object lesson The planners had integrated the audio scripts into the overall experience. The messages aimed at the same interpretive goals as written labels. They weren't an afterthought or a means of stuffing irrelevant content into the exhibit.


The Museum of Amsterdam communicated a lot of information non-verbally using numerals, icons, maps, and charts. These graphic panels had some Dutch and English text, but it seemed possible to extract some meaning without it.

  • Object lesson Even with an understanding of all the text, this medium takes some concentration to decipher. The Museum covered large areas with multiple infographics, and they weren't always related to each other. For instance, timelines (themselves a kind of infographic) near the floor did not signal the timeframe of stories in infographics above them. On the other hand, there's a kind of fun in puzzling out the meaning. Click [^] through the pictures above and you'll see a count of things removed from Amsterdam's canals and—paired on the same wall—information about same-sex marriages and the origins of immigrants.


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