Top 10 UK museums and libraries for Language and Linguistics students to visit this summer

by Craig Evans

The prominent linguist David Crystal has long campaigned for a museum of languages to be opened in the UK, following the example set by institutions such as the National Museum of Language in Maryland and Sao Paulo’s Museu da Língua Portuguesa (Museum of the Portuguese Language).


Crystal argues:


It ought to be possible for human beings to develop their interest in any area of knowledge by encountering it in the form of a museum; and for most subjects, this is the case. If I am interested in natural history, science, ships, aeroplanes, dolls, toys and a host of other topics, I can in many cities enter a building devoted to my subject and spend a happy day of exploration among like-minded people, benefiting from curatorial expertise. But this is not possible with the most human-defining of subjects: language.


The problem is that museums can be very expensive, and in order for them to be open and free for all to access (as a museum of language should be), government funding is required. In the lead-up to the millennium, there had been promising signs that the Crystal-backed proposal for a World of Language museum in London would be accepted, but then funds were diverted to other projects. The same proposal was again sidelined in favour of other arts and culture projects when funds for such schemes were made available in the build-up to the 2012 London Olympics.


For now, then, this means that we, as museum-deprived English Language and Linguistics students, must seek out our ‘happy day of exploration’ in our chosen subject ourselves, wherever we can get it.


Here are my top ten linguistics-related venues to visit this summer:


1. The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London:

  • Divided into galleries allocated to the history of different regions of the world, the British Museum contains ‘thousands of objects with writing on them from different periods and cultures, made from a variety of materials’. Primary among these is the greatest code-breaker of them all, the famous Rosetta Stone.


2. Bodleian Library, Broad Street, Oxford:

  • A working library at the heart of the city of spires, the Bodleian has been a favoured haunt for many academics and writers through the years. It is a place that may attract any students wishing to spend time soaking up a truly scholarly atmosphere while carrying out research. For non-Oxford University students, a reader’s card is needed, and you can apply for one of these via ‘admissions’. The Bodleian also plays host to a number of tours and exhibitions. Fans of children’s fantasy literature, or anyone interested in philology and its influence on this genre, may be interested in the ‘Magical Books: From the Middle Ages to Middle Earth’ exhibition. It runs from 23 May to 27 October 2013. Visit the website for more information.


3. Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford:

  • While in Oxford, you might also want to visit the Ashmolean. As the oldest public museum in the world, it houses one of the finest Anglo-Saxon collections in existence, which is perfect for people with an interest in the history of English: the various artefacts offer up insights into the culture of those who first spoke the language.  The collection includes the famous Alfred Jewel; a jewel commissioned by Alfred the Great (849-899 AD) which is thought to have once formed part of a pointer stick for reading.


4. Museum of London, London Wall, London:

  • The Museum of London is another great place for anyone wishing to explore the history of language. The Medieval London gallery, in particular, contains a varied selection, including old manuscripts, medieval writing tools and numerous objects with runic inscriptions, each helping to add something to the story of English.


5. The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Murdoch’s Lane, Alloway:

  • Having first opened in 2010, the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum guides visitors through the cultural experience that is the life and poetry of Scotland’s favourite son via the medium of the Scots language. Not that this should put off anyone who doesn’t speak the language, as English translations are included. This is perhaps worth a trip up to Ayrshire for anyone wishing to have the complete experience of the lyricism of the Scots language.


6. Dr Johnson’s House, Gough Square, London:

  • Dr Johnson is one of the most enduring characters from the history of the English language, and to visit this London town house is to inhabit the space where he wrote his greatest work, the influential ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’.


7. The British Library, Euston Road, London:       

  • As the UK’s national library, the British Library is a massive depository for millions of books, manuscripts, journals, recordings, and so on. This naturally makes it a major research centre. It also plays host to a number of exhibitions for the non-researcher visitor, including the Sir John Ritblat Gallery which houses a 1225 copy of the Magna Carta; the ‘Conservation Uncovered’ exhibition which may appeal to anyone wanting to discover the methods behind book and sound conservation; and from 17 May to 17 September 2013, there’s the ‘Propaganda: Power and Persuasion’ exhibition for anyone interested in the relationship between language and power.


8. Museum of Immigration and Diversity, Princelet Street, London:

  • Also commonly known by its address ’19 Princelet Street’, the Museum of Immigration and Diversity is a very small museum that celebrates multiculturalism. By all accounts, it is a ‘mysterious and magical place’ that seeks to capture the experience and stories of centuries of immigration. The single exhibition, ‘Suitcases and Sanctuary’, includes the same instruction repeated in Russian, Yiddish, Tamil, and numerous other languages: ‘Listen to the walls’. In this way, it is a place that invites the visitor to experience an atmosphere rather than behold an artefact. As it is a charity, the museum relies heavily on donations and is not generally open to the public. However, advanced group bookings can be made with a minimal suggested donation. Refer to the website for details.


9. Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich, Falls Road, Belfast:

  • Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich is an arts centre in West Belfast which has a particular focus on promoting Irish language and culture. On offer is a mixture of arts, theatre and music events, as well as classes in a variety of subjects.


10. Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London:

  • Language and science are inherently linked. Much of our understanding of how we make language is rooted in scientific understanding; however, without our capacity to generate new words and concepts, the impetus of progress that drives scientific exploration would be stunted. But this is all very abstract, and museums are about that which we can behold, such as John Martin’s 1862 writing machine for blind people or a Columbian printing press from 1837. Perhaps not as spectacular as full-sized aeroplanes dangling from ceilings, but such items can be full of wonder for people interested in the history of language and communication.

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