Why Make a Museum of Language?
Curious about Planet Word’s origins? Below is an excerpt from Ann Friedman’s keynote speech at Language Advocacy Day 2019. Here, she talks about what inspired her to undertake this incredible project to bring words and language to life!
Let me take you back about 5 years. It’s September 2013, and a relative asks me what I’ve been working on since retiring from teaching first grade reading in a public school a couple years earlier.
“Well, I have this idea to create a museum of words,” I confided, a little bit embarrassed to have such a grandiose ambition. “Have you ever been to the Museum of Mathematics in New York City?” I asked him. “It was started by a hedge fund guy who loved math so much he quit his job to start a math museum. And using a lot of high-tech, hands-on interactives, he made math fun — like showing you how you could ride a trike with square wheels.”
“I think a museum like that could work for literacy, too,” I said, “and besides,” I argued, “it’s so much more important. If we don’t have a literate society, if people can’t read with understanding or think critically about issues, if they don’t have the vocabulary they need or can’t engage in civil dialogue, how can they help our country navigate the complex issues of the day? How can they cast educated votes? Democracy depends on literate citizens.”
“And we know, from a study the NEA did a few years ago, that readers are more likely to be volunteers, to be active in their communities, and to vote. So we have to find a way to engage people of all ages with words and language and books and reading — and I think a museum is the way to go. Informal education. Exciting experiences. Make words awesome!”
And that’s how Planet Word was born.
I couldn’t find any evidence, despite the central importance of words in telling our stories and informing who we are and who we become, that there’s ever been a museum dedicated to them, to their fun, beauty, and power. There are museums dedicated to individual languages, and there’s the wonderfully charming Mundolingua, a tiny linguistics museum in Paris, but a major museum taking a high-tech approach to bringing language to life didn’t seem to exist anywhere.
As Michael Whitmore, the Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, once remarked to me, “We are all curators of our words from the day we’re born.” We are all born collectors of this one thing: Words. But those words, I would argue, have been the overlooked, disregarded, under-appreciated artifacts of our lives.
But no longer. Planet Word is about to change all that.