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News Update: 6/05/08
"Writing Language: Passing It On" Exhibit Opens the National Museum of Language
By Karelia Pallan

VisitorScores of D.C. area residents and students enjoyed exhibits and activities aimed at teaching the importance of language at the grand opening of the National Museum of Language in College Park, Maryland, on May 3. Visitors learned about writing systems around the world, including those that are written with letters from an alphabet like Arabic, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and those that use symbols, like Chinese and Japanese. "Today is something very monumental," said Board of Directors member David Zorc at the opening. "There are only 3 such institutions in the world." Zorc explained that while the exhibits may not center on one language, they do use specific examples from languages to illustrate the point.

The Museum has been in the planning process for 11 years, but the original impetus came much earlier. Founder Amelia Murdoch said she first got the idea for the Museum on January 11, 1971, after a temporary language exhibit at the National Security Agency. In 1985 a group chaired by Murdoch considered approaching the Smithsonian Institution about opening a language Museum, but the plan fell through at the time. "By 1997 I thought, ‘It’s now or never,’" Murdoch said. In July of that year the founders held their first meeting. Murdoch said her goal from the beginning was not just to explore languages, but the importance of languages in societies and even everyday interactions. Murdoch said her fascination with language comes from the powerful role language plays, as it forms the basis of civilization.

We considered language in general—the essence of language and how it originates, how it is taught and how it is used everyday," Murdoch said. Now with officers, a board of directors and associates, the National Museum of Language finally became a reality. The Museum includes an exhibition called "Writing Language: Passing It On" and an activity room to practice calligraphy in different languages.

Director visitors_writing students

"I really liked writing my name in Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese," said sixth-grader Michael Mouck from University Park Elementary school, who visited the activity room. Mouck said he likes learning about languages and wants to study Chinese, French and Japanese.

Jack JonesUchenna Uzomah, another sixth-grader from University Park, said it was a good exhibit and only suggested making the Museum bigger. Expanding the Museum is the next step the founders want to take. Murdoch said her ultimate goal is to create a 300 million dollar world-class museum. "It’s possible, but it has to be done in stages," Murdoch added. Murdoch said the Board of Directors are currently looking to expand to a larger interim building until they raise money for the construction and upkeep of the final museum.

Although there are several museums around the world dedicated to languages, the National Museum of Language is one of the few dedicated to the specific structure and nature of language and linguistics. Greg Nedved, an Associate of the Museum who worked on the Asian exhibit, said he wanted to remove some of the stigma surrounding the difficulty in learning Chinese by stressing that anyone who wants to can learn it. Fulfilling the founders’ aims, visitors at the Museum opening became more aware about languages and how they work. Nedved said, "We had a lot of people come out and it really came together."

The Museum is open Tuesdays and Saturdays from 10 am – 4 pm, and first and third Sundays from 1 – 4 pm. For directions and contact information, see

Activities at the Museum
Volunteers of all ages are needed this summer and during the school year. Memberships help to support the operation of the museum. Members and friends of the National Museum of Language will celebrate the opening of the exhibit at their annual dinner on June 14. . [include the link already there]

News Update: 2/26/08

The National Museum of Language (NML) is similar to only one or two museums of its kind in the world. In the United States, the Museum is very small but growing every day in College Park, Maryland. There are many language-specific museums in the world, but none like this one in College Park.

The Museum will open to the public Saturday, May 3, at 10:00 AM. The Museum has one small Exhibit room, a Hands-on-Activity room, and an office. One of the permanent exhibits consists of "The Allan Walker Read" Collection of Books. There are items on loan from the Alphabet Museum in North Carolina and from private collections.

The new exhibit to the public will focus on Communication..."Writing Language: Passing It On." The exhibits will focus on Arabic, Hebrew, Ge’ez writing; Chinese writing; with glimpses of Japanese and Cherokee writing. In today’s technologically advanced society (filled with email, blogs, and the Internet), language and writing are powerful.

The underlying themes of the Museum will focus on "Language in Society," "World Languages," and the "Universal Aspects of Language."

The Museum has been in the making since 1997. The Board of Directors for the Museum has been planning, organizing, collecting, sponsoring events and seeking funds to sponsor the first thematic exhibit for the public.

The National Museum of Language
7100 Baltimore Avenue – Suite 202
College Park, Maryland 20740


For ages: 9 to 99.
Opening: Saturday, May 3, 2008, 10:00 AM -4:00 PM
Download Invitation (PDF)

After May 3, the Museum will be open as follows:
Tuesdays and Saturdays, 9:00 AM - 4:00 PM; first and third Sundays, 1:00 PM - 4:00 PM.

First Posting: 12/06
Reaching Out to Colleagues in the Field of Languages:
Working to build a National Museum of Language

The Language Resource had the pleasure of talking with one of the founders of the National Museum of Language in College Park, Maryland the other day. Amelia Murdoch told us about plans for the museum and how language teachers can get involved. This museum promises to be a great resource for all of us who work in the language field.


LR: How did the idea come about for a Museum of Language?

AM: Well, this is on our website, but I’ll tell you about it.

I worked at the National Security Agency and I was on an advisory group to a top administrator who was in charge of research, who was also responsible for linguistic matters. The advisory group would complain to him that administrators didn’t understand the problems of linguists.

One Air Force Colonel was told it took ten years to train a linguist, and he said, "Why, that’s as long as it takes to train a pilot!" He seemed to think that linguists could be trained overnight. Another time we were trying to compile glossaries, and one manager said, "Why do you need somebody to buy your dictionaries?" - not realizing that we had world-wide responsibilities. For example, an African language might have a dictionary that was written in the 1940s that would be inadequate to today’s needs. The language guru, as we call him, George Vergine, he said, "Why don’t you have a language fair?" The graphics dept offered to do the entire exhibit for us, and it was successful because it was visually oriented, simplified. Each exhibit was unclassified but it illustrated a problem that was common to our work.
The effect of that exhibit on people when they first saw it was so outstanding, that it made us think we ought to do it on a museum scale. This was a way to reach people who do not understand the many aspects of language, that it changes, not in terms of years, but daily, and to illustrate that some languages are related, that it’s better to train people in related languages, and that in some countries, knowing one language is not enough, but you have to learn three languages, as in African countries where you have the national language, and the tribal language, and a colonial language.

When we did the language fair, the agency paid to have it put on display at the Greenbelt Armory for four days, and they paid to have the high school kids bussed in to see the exhibit. We found that some language teachers did not have a background in language – they were hired because they were native speakers of the language but they didn’t have much knowledge of language. We realized the teachers needed to have these concepts just as much as the kids did.

So we worked on it over the years, and in 1985 some of us were going to go to the Smithsonian, but no one wanted to do enough work to get it in shape to present to the Smithsonian. In ’97 I decided we had to get it together. When a group met, we decided to do it ourselves, not to go through the bureaucracy. Once we have it established, we may offer it to the Smithsonian, but we wanted to get the job done, that’s how we felt.

LR: On the website and in the newsletter there’s a picture of a building. Where would that be?


AM: We hired a young architectural student; we told him the site we wanted, and we’re trying to get a museum complex started near the Metro stop in College Park. That area has been designated as a museum complex by the city of College Park, There’s an aviation museum there now. We’d get a developer to build a complex centered around the language museum. Now we can’t ask for anything for exhibits because we don’t have storage space. We consider that an interim building. The young man who designed it did it as his master’s project. He was working with a specialist in museum design. It’s a serious effort by us to look to the future. But it requires a great deal of money and political clout. It’s hard to get sites the public will agree with. We’ll have to develop more public sentiment about the museum.

LR: It’s a beautiful building. Right now the exhibits in the museum

AM: They are very minor.

LR: I see you have some language lab equipment.

AM: We really don’t have anything yet. We have two rooms in the office building now, one has information about our programs, and the other has information on the museum itself, the building and the site. I’d like to have somebody design the program room so when you walk in it looks like a museum. We need more helping hands. The website, I think, is shaping up. That seems to be the place where the action is now, and where people want to help.

LR: What’s your ideal museum exhibit?

AM: We have decided on major themes
Universal Aspects of Language
Language in Society
Languages of the World

I’m working on the area of Language in Society – one of the things you can see in the US is in place names – the Indians have moved but the names of places have remained. We might start with the states’ names – that’s something everyone can relate to.
I’ve been talking with people about this since 1971, and if you talk to someone long enough, you discover that everybody has some special interest in language. When I talk about language I’m not just talking about conjugating verbs, and linguistics. People who are professional linguists often think of linguistics as being the subject, but the subject is really language. Language is so much a part of everything we do – language is technology, it’s the invention of the telephone, it’s the invention of the radio, it’s the study of the brain, and linguists do all of these things, but language is a larger study than the study of linguistics. I want the public to come in an see ‘how does the brain process language?’ I want two figures, because I want one to talk and one to listen, to show what happens when you speak, what goes on in the brain, how the ears operate, how the eyes operate, I want to show problems with hearing; what the brain is doing. This is not health; it’s all language. This huge battle at Gallaudet University is a language battle.

LR: What do you envision being a good exhibit in your new building? What would be interesting to the average ten year old?

AM: One topic that stood out as we talked to people about this museum is the Linguistic Heritage of America. I think it should show each of the foreign language elements that came to this country and where they went. And the food – think of the Latino food that is available here now.
The British wanted to have a "World of Language" museum, but they were looking to focus on the history of the English language. We could not make that the center of ours, because a lot of people in America would say, "I don’t care two hoots about the history of the English Language". They are more interested in their linguistic heritage, what the contribution is of that language.

LR: That’s the main feature of our culture, the diversity.

AM: Absolutely, and that’s what we say – we want to show how all of these linguistics groups have come to America and contributed to our literature… I’d like to have an author in residence, who’d stay for a year. We could have workshops with children. I’d like to have a separate hall for the Young Linguists. It would replicate what we are doing for the adults but at a child’s level. They’d have things on the floor, maybe maps, and writing and poetry workshops.

LR: My friend’s kids are really interested in different writing systems, and play with plastic Japanese or Chinese characters.

AM: What I want to have is displays on the various writing systems – and the evolution of writing instruments. You could have things so they could see what is the difference between a fountain pen and a quill pen.

LR: And a typewriter! Most of them have never seen a typewriter before.

AM: At ACTFL last year, we had a typewriter and everyone was drawn to it. People say, language is no intangible, but language is responsible for much of technology. It’s all interrelated. People don’t realize that, but a huge amount of technology today is oriented toward language. People want to see it faster, they want to see it clearer, or they want to have more fonts. One of the items we have listed under the Universal Aspects of Language refers to the recording of language. Everybody, I don’t care how smart or well educated they were, said, "Well, I hope you’re gonna have writing, too." She laughed. "What do you mean, records were originally written records!" That shocked me – this shows how language has evolved in society - they think of records as oral. In England, the history of the country is in the Hall of Records; births and deaths and all of that is in the Hall of Records.

I want to include both first language and second language acquisition. It’s important for people to come in and understand how kids learn. I want to have an explanation of the body as a language machine, with the brain as the control – how the ears work, how the eyes work, how your breath, how the lungs work, sign language, of course – the theory is, of course, that the use of the hands was essential in the beginning, in the origins of language – that it’s always been a part of language.

LR: I’ve always felt that gesture is very important.

AM: Yes, that’s it – there’s something in us that if you tied your hands and you couldn’t use them….

LR: You’d have trouble talking!

AM: I heard a lecture once by a woman who had this theory – and every thing was a gesture. That’s part of the universal aspect of language. You have the language machine – the physical and psychological functioning of the body. And then of course, the recording of language. It’s essential to being human. The fact that we are able to record language has changed the world.

LR: What kind of action would you like our readers to take if they want to support the museum?

AM: You can go to our website and let us know if you have a suggestion for a simple display, (we don’t have room for anything large) if you have a small display that you would like to design or build if necessary – if you’d need things like newspapers or writing instruments you’d have to gather those yourself. We’d also like donations and for people to become members. And remember us in your will.

LR: I think a lot of the foreign language teachers have probably been doing this kind of thing to inform people…

AM: Yes, the teachers are our best source of ideas. Not the linguistic scholar, who might not be able to put it into a workable idea of how to present it. But schoolteachers have. They’re used to doing this, they’ve been doing this for their constituents, for their students.

LR: To convey the importance of language.

AM: I’ve been disappointed that more of them have not stepped forward. I think that we can do more in terms of educating people in all walks of life. I’d like the museum to eventually become the ultimate place for the endangered languages of the world. Wouldn’t it be wonderful? If you have a museum that’s dedicated to language, that’s the place to have the endangered languages, not the Library of Congress – once we’re really established and have a few million dollars, we’d ask them to donate some of the materials they have so scholars can come. I see the museum as a place for anybody who wants to know something about language, and they don’t know where to go. When I was a sophomore in high school and I was asked what I wanted to do, I said I wanted to be a translator, because that’s the only thing I knew about.

I want to open up the world to students coming along, who say, "Why should I study French?" or "Why should I study Spanish?" We want to have two language lecture series, one is sort of a general one, and then I want to have ‘Language and Your Career, where we’d bring in doctors, nurses, teachers, and architects, who’d talk about the use of language in their work. It’s a huge project, so we need more volunteers, and we really need more money in the next year.

LR: Thank you for talking with us today.

Readers can contact the National Museum of Language
through their website or
National Museum of Language
Administrative Offices
Executive Building Suite 202
7100 Baltimore Avenue
College Park, MD 20740

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