My friend Pati has lived in San Diego County for 25 years and has never been to Balboa Park. On a Tuesday afternoon in March, I decide to right this wrong by dragging Pati and her son to the fountain, the playground, and the San Diego Natural History Museum. In truth, our outing is less about the travesty of Pati’s sad unfamiliarity with my number one favorite place in the city, and more about my curiosity of what she’ll think of the museum’s then-three-month-old Spanglish experiment.
Yes, Spanglish. When I tell Pati about the exhibit she looks confused. She doesn’t know what Spanglish is, which is funny because she’s a native of Tijuana and has raised both of her children in Chula Vista. This combination, I thought, would make her a prime candidate for Spanglish-speaking, but Pati doesn’t speak much English at all, and she has no interest in doing so. And because her husband (raised in Los Angeles) insists that their two children speak only Spanish at home, Pati also doesn’t get much exposure to Spanglish at home. I do my best to explain it to her in the car on our way up to Balboa Park.
1788 El Prado, Balboa Park
In January 2015, the San Diego Natural History Museum opened Coast to Cactus, a nine-millon-dollar permanent exhibition exploring our region’s biodiversity. The 8000-square-foot exhibit amps up the idea of traditional diorama displays so that, rather than peering over ropes or through glass, museumgoers find themselves immersed in the display — sort of inside the diorama.
Exhibit developer Erica Kelly says, “We’ve kind of strived to create experiences more than lecturing.”
One of my favorite parts of the exhibition is the re-creation of an urban patio where you can sit in an Adirondack-style lawn chair and observe wildlife in the canyon just beyond the balustrade. Every once in a while, a rat scurries overhead on the patio’s corrugated metal roof. From my reclining position in the chair, I overheard a woman exclaim, “Good golly, what was that?”
An “immersive virtual storybook” — a round room where the chapters of a wildfire story are written on the walls — also exemplifies the not-your-typical museum experience that Kelly refers to.
But the one Pati and I have come specifically to see includes a 16-foot Airstream Bambi, a starry sky, creepy crawly things in the trees, and a couple of Spanglish-speaking kids. A multimedia creation, “The Desert at Night” uses “object theater,” or “story theater,” to introduce museum visitors to desert nightlife.
“During the day, everything’s hiding,” Kelly says. “Nighttime is when everything goes down.”
The Airstream trailer is easy enough to find. It’s right behind the ticket desk at the museum’s south entrance. But for the best part, you have to venture into a small, darkened, cave-like area tucked away on the other side of the trailer, just past the palm tree and the rock formation. You settle yourself on the bench or the little stools and watch as the dark space gets darker and a night sky full of stars opens up in front of you. A domed tent lights from within to reveal the moving shadows of two children out camping.
“¡Ya párale, Michael!” the girl’s voice says.
“I can’t. You brought so much stuff in here, no tengo espacio,” the boy responds.
“Te dará gusto que tenemos esta cobija. It gets cold out here at night,” the girl says.
Back and forth they argue for a couple of rounds until a voice sounds from the direction of the Airstream.
“Nina, Michael, settle down, please. Cálmense,” Nina’s mother (Michael’s aunt) says.
Spanglish at the Natural History Museum
“The Desert at Night” is the Natural History Museum’s attempt to engage Spanish and English speakers at the same time.
For the next seven minutes, the kids listen to and discuss the sounds of coyotes, bats, and other wildlife around them. The tent, campsite floor, and a fabricated boulder serve as projection surfaces for video and still imagery of reptiles, arachnids, and other creepy crawlies that come out at night in the desert. Projected video and still imagery, animation, and multidirectional sound bring the scene to life.
The Natural History Museum submitted the exhibit for the American Alliance of Museums’ Media and Technology Muse Award, which “celebrates scholarship, community, innovation, creativity, education, and inclusiveness” through media in galleries, libraries, archives, or museums. In its submission packet for the award, the museum wrote, “The exhibit team’s intent with ‘The Desert at Night’ was not to lecture on the rich biodiversity of the desert, but to dramatize it, and to acknowledge the emotional response someone might have experiencing it firsthand.”
The experiential nature of using “object theater” in museums is not a new concept. Science North in Ontario, Canada, tried it back in the 1980s; others include the Boston Children’s Museum and the Minnesota History Center.
“People have done object theaters before, story theaters, but they’re not that common,” Kelly says. “But we’ve never seen one that’s been written in Spanish and English that goes back and forth in one dialogue.”
To create the script for “The Desert at Night” and make it as authentic as possible, the exhibit’s creators pulled together a team of staff members that included local native Spanish speakers from both sides of the border. The script underwent 32nd drafts before the team deemed it ready for recording. Although the museum hired the Science Museum of Minnesota and Blue Rhino Studios, a Minnesota-based fabrication and design company, to produce Coast to Cactus, they did not want to rely on Minnesota actors to voice the script. Instead, they held a local casting call to ensure an authenticity of accents.
“We had to fight for [the Spanglish] a little bit with our producers in Minnesota because they read the first couple drafts of the script and they were, like, ‘I don’t understand...why aren’t they speaking one language? Why are they speaking this way?’” Kelly says. “[We said], ‘You just have to trust us that this is a very regional way of speaking.’”
Creating a Spanglish script for a museum exhibit was not as easy as merely replacing a Spanish word for an English word here and there. One reason it underwent so many revisions was that, along with regional authenticity of voice, the writers also had to pay close attention to the material. Where Spanglish is often used between two bilingual people, who both can move fluidly between English and Spanish, the museum had to also be sure that Spanish-only and English-only visitors could understand the information as well. And, unlike the automated telephone voice that asks callers to press 1 for English and 2 for Spanish, “The Desert at Night” is the museum’s attempt to engage Spanish and English speakers at the same time.
Robert Garfinkle, of the Science Museum of Minnesota and project leader for Coast to Cactus production, says the pushback was less a concern about the Spanglish itself and more an issue with the challenge of how to “carry the message essentially in half the number of words.”
One strategy the script employs is the use of visual and audial clues to cover whatever gaps the listener might experience in the verbal exchange between the children. For example, when Nina describes what she knows about the ring-tailed cat to Michael, a sketch appears in the starry sky, the size of the eyes and ears changing in size according to Nina’s description.
Along with visual reinforcements throughout the presentation, the script relies on question-and-answer repetition to reach speakers of both languages. For instance, while Nina describes the ringtail, Michael asks, “How big are its eyes?”
[The sketch appears with gigantic eyes.]
Nina: No, no tan grandes. [The eyes shrink to a more appropriate size.] Y un hocico de comadreja...
Michael: A snout like a weasel?
[The sketch’s snout changes to that of a weasel.]
Nina: ...y una cola muy larga [the tail changes to follow Nina’s description], fluffy and striped like a raccoon’s tail, pero más larga, y más fluffier.
Michael: Yeah, a cola de mapache.
“What Erica [Kelly] showed me really gracefully with that script was that it’s not just half the words; you’re listening to the other language as well,” Garfinkle says. “Even someone like myself who doesn’t speak Spanish, I recognized that I was also listening to some of the Spanish and taking away cues from the way the person is speaking and some of the words that I could pick up, and so it made for a really active listening experience.”
“The Desert at Night” did not win a 2015 Muse Award, and Kelly says they still don’t know whether it’s effective. They’re currently in the phase of formal evaluation, not only of “The Desert at Night,” but also of the whole Coast to Cactus exhibition. The Natural History Museum has hired a professional evaluator to come in and track and time visitor interactions, interview museumgoers about their experiences and the messages they take away from the exhibit components, and determine the exhibition’s “hot spots” and “cold spots” as well as whether the museum is getting its intended messages across.
“I love this phase of it, because it’s where you finally get that outside feedback about how did we do and what can we change,” says Kelly, who has been working on Coast to Cactus since she joined the development team in 2006.
After the data collection, the professional evaluator interprets the data and delivers a report to the Natural History Museum. They don’t expect the full report until summer. Until then, hopeful as she is about “The Desert at Night,” Kelly will not venture a guess about whether or not it’s a hot spot.
Garfinkle, on the other hand, says, “My instinct tells me that it’s worked really well. I feel confident that it flows pretty well, and I’ll be pleased to hear what the evaluators say about it.”
Pati and I and our kids all enjoyed it. And no one around seems confused or caught up (or off-guard) by the language. In fact, on the way out, Pati and I have the following exchange in our own version of Spanglish:
Elizabeth: Ya quieres go camping en el desert?
Pati: Sí, en esto [pointing to the Airstream]. No me gusta arañas.
In late April, Erica Kelly forwards me a preliminary draft from the evaluators. It begins with an explanation that “a bilingual data collector observed the space for approximately three hours, observing 35 visitor groups and interviewing 10 of them.”
“Spanish-speakers from the area were highly complimentary of the narration. For instance, one woman said ‘We are living this,’ the report reads. “One man perceived the family as Mexican because of the Spanglish and valued seeing this representation.
“Of visitors who did not speak Spanish, most said the narration did not impede their experience and enjoyment, noting that words were repeated in both languages and there were supporting visuals.”
In addition to the report, Kelly sent a couple of direct quotes collected from visitor exit interviews.
“At first, I was wanting to translate for the kids, but then I realized that it was like — they could hear both.”
“Usually, they’ll either — it’ll be all Spanish or just English, and when they combine the two, it kind of just throws your brain for a loop.”
“I don’t like to encourage Spanglish use.”
“I thought the Spanglish was great! That’s how I speak with my son! It’s a real thing because we live at the border.”