Grepstad, Ottar – abstract copy

Ottar Grepstad, General Director, Centre for Norwegian Language and Culture, Ørsta, Norway

Beyond the exhibitions of language museums: culture of memory and politics of language

There are 7.5 billion people and 7100 languages, but only 75 language museums. How can they cope with the diversity of language? I will present some answers in three parts: culture of memory, politics of language and the role of language museums in current affairs.

Every society needs a culture of memory so to say to exist as a society. What is so important that it should be remembered, what constitutes the culture of memory, and who makes the decisions about it? Culture of memory also implies a politics of memory, understood as the use of the past to strengthen values and interests today. Museums are one of the major social institutions of memory and contribute in crucial ways to the public culture of memory. That means a social role for even language museums in the current situation of language diversity.

For centuries, the ruling idea was that one nation should have only one language in order to be a strong nation. This determined the politics of language to be concentrated upon the national languages in every country, at least in Europe. Museums had no part and took no role in that development until the end of the 19th century, when the first language museum opened in Norway. A few years before, the Norwegian parliament had made Norway one of the first officially bilingual nations of the world. Just a coincidence? To a certain degree, but in the last part of the 20th century the thinking about language and politics of language in many countries changed into an understanding of the values of language and cultural diversity. That created a need for more and revised language museums.

Since 2008, I have been hunting for language museums. By presenting the new publication Language museums of the world in Firenze, I will draw the attention to some important traits of the development and role of language museums for the last decades. My findings imply that language museums have work to do that affects the thinking of exhibiting spoken and written languages as cultural heritage. The role of the language museums might become crucial just when our guests leave our exhibitions. What waits beyond that point of no return?

Interior: Jaro Hollan, Ivar Aasen Centre

Interior: Jaro Hollan, Ivar Aasen Centre

Detail: Kib & Morits, Ivar Aasen Centre

Detail: Kib & Morits, Ivar Aasen Centre

The Ivar Aasen Centre is one of three museums owned by Centre for Norwegian Language and Culture. The museum opened in 1898, and the new main building from 2000 offers changing exhibitions on language and written culture.