By Gregory Nedved
As the global pandemic has sidelined museums throughout the world, a museum right here in College Park — the National Museum of Language (NML) — is flourishing. The museum explores languages and their role in societies throughout the world. When NLM opened, in 2008, it was the only museum of its kind, anywhere.
The NML originated from an exhibit sponsored by the National Security Agency in 1971. Dr. Amelia C. Murdoch, who had helped organize that exhibit, set her sights on creating a language museum she could open to the public. That dream was partially realized in 1997, when NML began. Murdoch saw its completion in 2008, when the College Park museum welcomed its first visitors. The location was personal to her; she chose her home, College Park, to be the museum’s home, too. Located at 7100 Baltimore Avenue, NML initially consisted of three display areas and an office.
From 2008 to 2013, NML offered exhibits exploring the many ways individuals and societies use language. The museum’s longest running exhibit, “Writing Language: Passing It On,” compared alphabetic writing systems, like Greek, with pictographic writing systems, like Japanese. “Emerging American Language in 1812” commemorated the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 by exploring the English language of that time. A third exhibit, “Glimpses of French in the Americas,” introduced the exceptionally diverse universe of French dialects in the Western Hemisphere.
The museum had a language tree, which allowed visitors to trace their language roots. Visitors could take a spelling test typical of one that students might take in 1812 or review rare foreign-language sacred texts. They could also practice writing Chinese characters, guess the origins of Native American words, translate their names into other languages or play an online language game.
The pandemic forced museums worldwide to focus on virtual programming, but NML was a frontrunner, transitioning to online exhibits, back in 2013. (The museum continued to hold speaker programs in College Park, as well.) Its first virtual exhibit was a simulation game that offered a glimpse into field research. For this endeavor, NML partnered with the University of Wisconsin, which was compiling a dictionary of regional English in America. The museum’s website now features interviews with a number of linguists, offers support for language instructors and explores a different language each month. And on a lighter side, the site has what may be the world’s largest collection of ancient Greek jokes — about 265 of them, in fact.
When the pandemic struck, NLM stepped up with expanded partnerships and more online offerings, including an exhibit showcasing children’s stories in a number of languages (14 so far). NML has continued to host events, too, but has made them entirely virtual. One popular event is a regular language trivia night, which is conducted in English but focuses on another language (the first in this series explored Chinese). The museum’s website includes a virtual guided tour.
One of the museum’s unique features is its moveable museum strategy, through which NML lends items to patrons for display. NML has also expanded its language camps and is recruiting volunteers to serve as language liaisons to help educators. So far, 16 volunteers have contributed their time to this endeavor.
The goal of NLM’s board is to ultimately reopen the museum as a brick-and-mortar facility, one that, according to its mission statement, “inspires an appreciation for the magic and beauty of language.” But whether you visit the museum virtually or, down the road, in person, know that the National Museum of Language welcomes everybody for whom language is important — and this includes you! To learn more about NML, visit www.languagemuseum.org.