Opening of the National Museum of Language

Logo of the National Museum of LanguageI had the opportunity yesterday (April 29) to visit the National Museum of Language (NML) in College Park, Maryland (U.S.) by invitation for a special preview day. The museum opens to the public formally on Saturday, May 3.

The name gives the impression that it is government-owned, like the various other “national” museums and galleries in Washington, DC, it is actually a private effort by a small non-profit organization. It’s also physically rather small with basically one main exhibit room, and a small suite with some more displays, a meeting room for activities and classes, and a small office. But it is a beginning that was a long time coming – apparently the concept goes back to 1971 and the actual organization began in 1997 (and incorporated 10 years ago).

NML’s vision is described as:

The mission of The National Museum of Language is to enhance understanding of all aspects of language in history, contemporary affairs, and the future.

… and it intends to “[foster] the study of the nature of language, its development, and its role and importance in society, and by exploring linguistic problems and ways of overcoming them” in order to serve people in diverse pursuits and walks of life, and to promote understanding.

The first exhibit of NML – “Writing Language: Passing It On” – focuses on writing systems. It has some nice examples and some interactive computer programs:

The opening exhibit … will show both alphabetic writing systems (Arabic, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew) and logographic writing systems (Chinese and Japanese). [from the press release]

In addition to looking at the exhibits, I also had the chance to talk with several of the principal leaders of the museum, notably Dr. Amelia Murdoch, the president, and Drs. Pat Barr-Harrison and Jill Robbins of the board of directors. They shared some ideas and plans about the museum project. Eventually they and their colleagues hope to be able to move into a facility of their own – either something existing or new, like the image displayed on the NML website.

The opening of the NML is a significant step, even if a small one, and hopefully it will get more attention and funding to realize its potential. Symbolically it is nice that it occurred in the International Year of Languages (IYL).

The NML is also one of a handful of locations devoted to languages around the world that deal with languages as a whole. One of the ideas that I’m personally interested in is finding a way to get these “language museums” linked in a productive network. In fact this is an emerging category of museum that in its broadest sense might include also language-specific museums. The IYL would seem to be an ideal time to develop connections and put in place structures that can facilitate collaboration and assistance to new initiatives for language-related displays and institutes for public awareness and learning.


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