Thursday, May 1, 2008

Language museum to open in University Park

Exhibits focus on early alphabetic languages and writing artifacts

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Twenty-seven years of hard work paid off for Amelia Murdoch on Tuesday, as she watched the doors of the National Museum of Language open for the first time in University Park.

Murdoch, the museum’s founder and president, first came up with the idea for a language museum in 1971.

‘‘It’s unbelievable,” she said. ‘‘I woke up this morning and said, ‘Today is the day.’ So many talented people had something to contribute.”

The museum, located at 7100 Baltimore Ave., held two private openings on Tuesday. The first included a group of 10 randomly chosen sixth grade students from University Park Elementary School. Ten more will attend Saturday’s public opening. The museum must be open 120 days a year in order to be recognized as a museum. The museum, which is free to the public, is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Saturdays and from 1 to 4 p.m. every first and third Sunday.

‘‘It went extremely well,” Pat Barr-Harrison, a member of the museum’s board of directors, said. ‘‘The students said, ‘This is better than recess.’ If you can capture that from students, it’s great.”

The main exhibit, titled ‘‘Writing Language: Passing It On”, is set up in a 16-foot by 24-foot office on the second floor of the building. Half the room is dedicated to early alphabetic languages —Arabic, Latin, Greek and Hebrew — while the other half details Chinese and Japanese, which are based on symbols rather than alphabetic characters.

A second exhibit is set up in the reception room of the museum, which includes old Asian writing artifacts as well as books on calligraphy and artwork featuring many different languages.

There are also interactive exhibits for children, including calligraphy lessons and interactive language learning games.

Barr-Harrison said despite the size of the museum, the full tour can take up to three hours.

Members of the press and museum contributors were also invited.

Bret Lovejoy, executive director of the American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages, said some of the materials were obtained through teachers and people in the American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages, an umbrella organization for language teachers.

Murdoch put up her own money, and relied on membership dues for the rest of the financing.

Three years ago, Marian Jenkins, a close friend of Murdoch’s, died and left $22,000 to the museum. That money helps to subsidize the rent, which is approximately $2,000 a month, Murdoch said.

‘‘We’re all working for free,” she said. ‘‘We weren’t able to go out and hire this expert to make this recommendation for that expert to add that dimension. We took the specialties of the people who were willing to volunteer their time and their expertise, and I think we did pretty well.”

The board will continue to work toward putting the museum in its own building, which Barr-Harrison said would allow the museum to expand on the concepts and themes of the original exhibits.

‘‘One of the things I’m proud of is that nobody has ever said it was a bad idea,” Murdoch said. ‘‘You get all kinds of criticism for everything you do, but nobody ever said it will never work.”

E-mail Jonah Schuman at