The English Project ... in Florence

The Eurotales Conference of International Language Museums, February, 2017:

 The people behind 10 language museums met in the splendour of the restored chapel of San Jacopo at the Istituto Lorenzo de Medici, Florence, to share experiences on various ways to educate and enthuse about their languages at the Eurotales conference.

Florence is itself a town filled with treasures. A short distance from the conference, a separate linguistic treasury led the world in its own language enterprise for over 450 years. The Accademia della Crusca has a rich history of leading on the development of the Italian language. Said to be the oldest language academy in the world (founded 1583) the Accademia created its dictionary of the Florentine language in 1612, inspiring a range of other language dictionaries across Europe. Now the Accademia is recognized as the greatest authority on the Italian language in the world.

Representatives from across Europe, Canada and South Africa filled the Eurotales event with a wealth of contributions, which included a warm reception for the developing plans toward our own English Project. A range of language collections of all sizes and shape shared ideas and good practice. And across the collection were language museums from all sorts of background - some state-funded, some private, some very personal to their creator, some university-sponsored, some academic, some more mainstream.

Organised by an intrepid team from the universities of Rome, Florence, and Ankara, this conference addressed issues such as how do we engage visitors with language artefacts and activities; what is the theory underpinning language-museum practice, and what can we all learn from the journey each museum has taken?

To name-check just a few, the Canadian Language Museum, Toronto developed as a portable exhibition to be packed on a train or into car to tour and is the brainchild of Elaine Gold, who blazed a trail similar to that of The English Project, working with a local university to kick-start her exhibitions. Looking to our European friends, we have developed a strong link with Stephanie Lebreton, Director of Le Musee Champollion, Figeac, France, where a local authority regeneration project led to the new and exquisite museum of writing, which hosts themed exhibitions annually to keep new faces visiting.

From Esperanto in Vienna to Afrikaans in Paarl; Lithuanian in Vilnius to Occitan in Cuneo, a treasury of language experience filled the historic chapel for 3 days and many good contacts and friends were made for The English Project. The tone was very much one of international co-operation among language collections. Many of these museums (itself a contentious and perhaps misleading term) celebrate connections between and across languages, many discuss the variety around languages and the diversity within them: the wealth was very much in the range and scale of experience present.

Our conference was a stimulating forum for ideas. Personal friendships were forged in discussions – and, thanks to the generosity of our hosts, over good food and wine. It was fascinating to see the range of views about language policy and the perennial, thorny dilemma of funding. We were all left keen to visit each others’ projects – though some are more ‘virtual’ than others.

There was great excitement at the latest developments in The English Project and much praise for our mission that our mission is descriptive, open-minded, outward-looking - and fun. There was particular interest in the way we might engage with the topic of loanwords (or borrowings) from other languages into English; in our year of the English language and India, food for thought.

Marcus Barrett

Trustee, The English Project