Art & Lit

Review: ‘LinguaMania’ at the Ashmolean

Ashmolean Museum

In the uncertain global climate of 2017, there is more need than ever for us to celebrate diversity, find common connections and communicate with each other, and what better way to do so than through a shared exploration and appreciation of languages? This was the premise of the Ashmolean Museum’s ‘Live Friday’ programme entitled LinguaMania. Hosted by ‘Creative Multilingualism’, an Oxford University-led research programme exploring the diverse benefits afforded by learning new languages, the event aimed to celebrate languages in all their forms. From ancient and modern, to script and spoken word, the range of activities was almost as diverse as the languages which they were showcasing, with events encompassing both the most basic linguistic elements of languages and the creativity inspired by multilingualism through music and theatre.

As I approached the Ashmolean on Friday evening, I noticed that even an hour after the event had officially begun there were people flocking to the entrance like bees to a hive. Once inside, I was drawn immediately into the general hubbub and mesmerised by the atmosphere. All around me clustered groups of people excitedly chatting away in a mixture of languages; wherever I turned, I was greeted with more animated enthusiasm and laughter. Further into the heart of the museum I was aware of a musical performance taking place, and soon came across the enthralled audience, who lined the stairs at every level in order to engage with the artists’ work. Turning to my left to investigate the fringes of the museum, I soon became aware that around almost every corner there was another activity for me either to participate in, or to admire from afar. Tour groups clustered around specific linguistically-orientated artefacts in the museum, learning history through language, while taster sessions for a variety of languages were taking place against the background of the Ashmolean’s exhibitions showcasing wide-ranging cultures.

Through an imaginative range of events, diversity was celebrated, common connections were found and people began to communicate with each other in ever more fascinating ways

I quickly realised, after five minutes of aimless wanderings, that it would be simply impossible for me to take part in every single activity. Instead, I decided to try out a few of the more hands-on events for myself, while stopping every so often to admire the creativity taking shape all around the museum. After heading to the basement, I began my journey in the distant past with a crash-course on writing in Cuneiform. Upon closer examination, this ancient language seemed to possess the most inefficient form of script of any language I had come across, which served as a common point of discussion with others around the table who were also grappling with recreating a series of small triangles and lines in clay with chopsticks. Proud of my handiwork and enthused by the new people I had met, I moved on to admiring the captivating art of Chinese calligraphy. It is easy to lose track of time while watching a series of deft strokes combining in various patterns to create completely different meanings on the page, as was demonstrated by the participants’ requests: I asked to have the phrase ‘I love languages’ written down for me, while the person in front opted for ‘may the force be with you’. Moving onwards and upwards, ascending the floors of the museum in search of a quieter space, I stumbled upon an exercise entitled ‘bot or not?’, bringing me with a thud back to present-day technological reality. This quiz gave a series of translations and transcriptions of various languages and word-patterns, and asked the participant to decide which they thought were done by humans and which by automated modern technology; a notable example was Siri’s attempted transcription of ‘words’, accidentally recorded while someone was practising the tuba nearby. Stretching along one of the longer corridors in the museum was a huge scroll with a gathering of people eager to make their contributions. This was ‘Harry Potter and the Rosetta Stone’, an initiative which allowed members of the public each to add a sentence to the opening chapter of the first Harry Potter book in whichever language they happened to know. This made for a fascinating experience as I traced the story line-by-line across the room, recognising snatches of the text through languages familiar to me while marvelling at the range of scripts and languages which were interwoven through the scroll. Seeking a relaxing end to the evening, I sought out the hieroglyphic section and finally came full-circle by once more attempting to write my name in a completely alien historical script.

The huge variety of entertainment on offer was an incredible asset to the event, as there were small, thought-provoking activities such as creating metaphors for language learning quietly taking place alongside the more energetic audience engagement offered by music and theatre. However, just as important to the event’s stated aims were the spaces in the museum left unchanged by the flurry of activities happening around them. This meant that while wandering around, I was able to experience the museum’s exhibits in a new light, take stock of the wonderful cultural diversity on display and engage with this visual material through the lens of the linguistic and cultural celebrations taking place in the background.

All in all, the event was hugely successful, as evidenced not just by the huge crowds which it generated, but also by the positive atmosphere that permeated every room of the museum. Through an imaginative range of events, encompassing all aspects of language – the big and the small, the modern and the ancient – diversity was celebrated, common connections were found and people began to communicate with each other in ever more fascinating ways. All this was set against the backdrop of the many cultural and historical heritages exhibited in the Ashmolean’s collections, which linked language with its wider role in creating a wonderful variety of cultures across the world. In essence, through both the poignant setting and countless meaningful activities, LinguaMania created an extremely positive experience in celebration of the importance and creativity of language in all its various forms.

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