A Virtual Museum of Language for Oxford

Originally posted at blogs.it.ox.ac.uk on November 4, 2015 by Martin Wynne. IT Services at the University of Oxford has decided to delete a large number of historical blogs, and this is one of a number of posts related to the Oxford Text Archive which are being re-published here, after being laboriously retrieved from the archive provided by the Wayback Machine.

The University of Oxford is home to unrivalled collections of  materials and expertise relating to human language, dispersed across faculties, museums, libraries and other units. A pilot project is proposed to imagine a new virtual museum, which would bring together and feature online resources and information about physical collections at the University of Oxford, in the various museums, galleries and libraries. The visitor to the website would see images, video, sound and text, to entertain and to inform about some aspect of language and its use. The collections of the virtual museum would start by creating exhibits which draw together existing materials, and then be built up over time with a series of new online exhibits created by guest curators. Exhibits could feature digital images of artefacts in museums, opportunities for exploring language resources online, interactive language games, podcasts and blogs about research in the University. The intended audience would be the general public, including sixth form students.

The museum could work closely with, and not try to replace or compete with, existing outreach activities. It should be seen as a portal to help web visitors to find ways to navigate to the wealth of language-related online resources created by people in different parts of the University. Obvious partners, already involved in outreach, engagement, dissemination and knowledge exchange activities online would be TORCH, Oxford Sparks, Digital Humanities at Oxford, Digital.Bodleian and numerous websites provided by OUP for language learners and others interested in language. The museum could also provide a platform for new citizen science and crowd-sourcing projects.

Language is a feature of all disciplines in the university, sometimes directly as the sole object of study, but more often as one component in more complex objects and processes, and almost ubiquitously as the medium of communication. Linguists study language, but all human and social scientists study social and cultural phenomena which are infused with language. There are scientists who study physical, mental and medical aspects of language, but all conduct the large part of their communications via language.

The distributed collections would include obvious candidates for material from the following faculties: Modern Languages; Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics; Oriental Studies; Classics; English Language and Literature, but all would be welcome to contribute. One of the key uses of the museum would be to offer a route for dissemination and outreach for research projects by presenting their research and their outputs to a general audience, and the musuem could be a central pathway to impact for these and other disciplines.

In Social Sciences, initial exhibits could be sought from Anthropology (relating to endangered languages), Education (particularly relating to language teaching and learning), Oxford Internet Institute (language on the web). The Migration Observatory (http://migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/) is involved in large-scale linguistic analysis of public discourse about migration, as a sociological research topic and to inform social policy and to inform the general public, and has existing materials relevant for a museum exhibit on this topic (see, for example http://www.compas.ox.ac.uk/2013/pr-2013-migration_media/).

In Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences Division (MPLS), the e-Research Centre and the Computational Linguistics Group in Computer Science are already home to research projects focussed on language, and Medical Sciences is involved in research, treatment and therapy relating to numerous aspects of human language. Exhibits could build on existing collaborations on themes relating to medical humanities, the history of science, and humanities and science (especially TORCH themes and networks), and the degree course in  Psychology, Philosophy and Linguistics (http://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/courses-listing/psychology-philosophy-and-linguistics).

Oxford University Press could potentially provide exhibits relating to:

  • The Press Archive (e.g. old printing presses, books, artefacts relating to the history of the OED);
  • Oxford English Dictionary (OED);
  • Dictionaries and Scholarship online;
  • Relevant entries from the DNB (e.g famous linguists and linguistic innovators);
  • Monographs (some full-text online) on linguistics and history of language monographs, and also examples of different language varieties exemplified in publications from different periods;
  • Corpora of contemporary language  (e.g Oxford Corpus of English, Oxford Twitter Corpus).

Relevant exhibits from the Bodleian Libraries are practically limitless, and could certainly include materials from:

  • Centre for Digital Scholarship;
  • Centre for the Study of the Book;
  • Special collections;
  • Digital.Bodleian;

and all of the libraries in the University would of course be encouraged to create exhibits. The Language Centre and the Department for Continuing Education are also likely to be potential collaborators.

The representation of materials and artefacts in the Museums would be a key pillar of the virtual museum. All University Museums would be encouraged to contribute, with some obvious candidates being early language inscriptions and tablets in the Ashmolean Museum, audio recordings by anthropologists in the Pitt Rivers. The University Museum of National History could bring in an evolutionary perspective, and perhaps something on animal communication from. Collaborations with the the galleries and visual art should also be explored.

Featured themes could bring together cross-disciplinary perspectives, and could include, for example, real-time monitoring of public and social media discourse on selected themes (e.g. Europe, environment, migration, etc.),  500 years of the history of printing, language of the reformation (2017 will be the five-hundredth anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses), the Language of the first world war, etc..

Some exhibits in the virtual museum would draw on existing online materials, e.g.

Simple interfaces would also be offered to search language resources online, such as the British National Corpus (BNC) simple search, and the similar services for many other languages, e.g. http://clarin.eu/content/services. Further possible services from the virtual museum could be ‘Ask an expert’, where language-related queries could be answered and discussed.Other potential participants outside the university could be invited to contribute, although the intention would be to maintain a strong University of Oxford identity and branding for the museum. Potential external partners could include the Oxford Brookes publishing course, Digital Oxford, schools, other publishers in addition to OUP, The Story Museum, and other museums and libraries. The CLARIN-UK network could also be invited to contribute exhibits. CLARIN-UK is a consoritum of linguistics experts in the UK who have come together to promote the use of online and digital resources in research in the humanitiies and social sciences and beyond. Potential exhibits here could be based on the Metaphor Map, SCOTS corpus, the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches in Social Sciences, text mining from the GATE team at the University of Sheffield, etc. Some of the activites and resources involved can be seen at the CLARIN-UK website.

As well as being inspired by existing collections and research in Oxford, the developing ideas for this museum have drawn on a number of sources, including discussions with the Ludwig Eichinger, Director of a new Museum of the German Language which is under development in Mannheim, and the proposals for an English Language Museum in Winchester (http://www.englishproject.org/resources/english-language-museum-winchester), and a proposal made for by David Crystal some years ago for a London Language Museum (http://www.davidcrystal.community.librios.com/?fileid=-4845 [PDF file]). These are all proposed as physical museums, but they usefully draw attention to the gap in the market, and the potential breadth of relevant exhibits. The Language at Leeds initiative also shows how language can be at the centre of a truly multi-disciplinary activity in a University.

More suggestions and volunteers to contribute are welcome!

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