Mother Tongue

In São Paulo, Brazil, the Museum of the Portuguese Language vividly unites language and cultural identity

"What are the roots of your language?" I ask a group of students waiting to enter the Museum of the Portuguese Language in São Paulo's Estação da Luz (Station of Light). Their friendly, hesitant responses—"Latin?" "Portuguese!" "English," "German?"—are a choral validation of the essential nature of this new museum. These kids are from SENAC São Paulo, part of a national network of vocational trade schools. The language they learn to read and write doesn't reflect the uniquely rich complexity of Brazilian Portuguese. How could they know their language is 20 percent Arabic and forged by rich lineages of African Bantu and indigenous Tupi and Guarani?

"Brazilian schools neither reflect nor teach Brazil," says the museum's curator, the sociologist and award-winning documentarian Isa Grinspum. "Brazilians are ignorant of their own history." Hence this impressive mission: "To show that our language is fundamental, the founder of our culture. The museum will be a

place of celebration and praise for the Portuguese language—a dynamic space, playful, interactive, where Portuguese speakers will have a living identification with their mother tongue."

How to realize such an abstract idea? The concept originated a decade earlier within the Roberto Marihno Foundation, but its real genesis came in 2003 with two anthropologists, Roberto Pinho and Antonio Risério, then working as advisers to minister of culture Gilberto Gil. Grinspum was brought in, she says, "to help shape the foundation of what the museum would become." Soon after that, world-renowned American exhibition director Ralph Appelbaum and Brazilian artistic director Marcello Dantas joined the team.

"As we worked, we added linguistic experts, anthropologists, writers, poets, and filmmakers, and were able to see a museum with a few basic objectives plotted along a few central axes," Grinspum remembers. A straightforward idea, perhaps, but based on a tremendous amount of sociological and linguistic research. "We strove to valorize the Brazilian language in all its complexity," she says. "Brazilian Portuguese is a mixed language spoken by a mixed population; this idea of mistura [mixture] was very important to us.... The language is created every day by all Brazilians."

With no precedent or reference point, the process of creating the world's first language museum—a living museum—was inventive by necessity. Meetings were as improvisational as Brazilian culture and as free-flowing as language itself, which "allowed for extremely creative conversations—it was like playing jazz together," recalls Appelbaum. How does an American designer make a museum about a language he doesn't speak? Dantas explains: "Ralph guided our thinking by challenging us with his questions.... He has the wonderful ability to speak softly and make people reach consensus."

According to Appelbaum, "We were always searching for big narrative ideas—ways to provide a contextual environment where Brazilian culture and language could play itself out. It was critical for us to know that what was revealed was not so much the language, but something about the virtues and values and character of Brazilian people." He continues, "Here's a nation that has been able to find extraordinary joy in sharing music, food, and traditions, and ended up with this mixture of cultures and races that's a model of what the real future could be like. I guess that's why, in the end, this idea of mistura is really beautiful to me."

It helps that the space itself is so inclusive. The founders chose Estação da Luz—once one of São Paulo's busiest train stations—for the museum's home, as much for its accessibility as for its symbolic potential. Located in a rundown part of the city, this fin-de-siècle landmark is a humble jewel that welcomes everyone. For less than the price of an afternoon snack at the padaria (bakery), admission costs four Brazilian reais, about two American dollars. To Appelbaum, this is a democratic ideal in action: "The admission is very low. It enables all kinds of people to enter."

Given that high-traffic, egalitarian quality, the museum's founders faced a special challenge: speaking to the widest possible audience without dumbing down the complexity of linguistic facts. As Grinspum points out, it was key "to treat language in a way that was simple, not simplistic." After all, Appelbaum adds, "One of the reasons for the museum is to make people feel good about what they do know." The museum, which formally opened on March 20, 2006, incorporates seven exhibitions (plus one rotating exhibition), executed in a wide variety of media and designed to evolve so that it will be, as Grinspum says, "a live museum, not a mausoleum."

That mandate is clear even before reaching the official exhibits. After entering from the old train station (aptly, through turnstiles), one ascends a glass elevator alongside Rafic Farah's three-story sculpture Tree of Words. From 6,000-year-old words at its roots rises Brazilian Portuguese, one of the world's youngest languages.

On the first floor is the temporary exhibition, currently occupied by "Grande Sertão: Veredas," an installation by the director and artist Bia Lessa. It's an homage to the 1956 avant-garde novel of the same name, which many credit with giving legitimacy to Brazilian Portuguese. Thoughtfully and physically deconstructed, the installation is a narrative map that invites even reluctant readers to enter and discover the significance of the book's unique vocabulary and syntax.

One floor up, there's a long open space incorporating five of the museum's exhibits. Along the left wall in the Grand Gallery runs a video-projection screen that, at 115 yards, is one of the world's longest. Eleven seamless and simultaneously layered montaged films—each with its own soundtrack—put language into context with themed vignettes: dance, parties, carnival, soccer, music, human relations, food, values, knowledge, and Portuguese culture. The separate films unify to become a single flowing image.

An interactive map of Brazil, "Map of the Speakers," allows the visitor to navigate audiovisually through the country's diverse regional vernaculars. A timeline of the history of the Portuguese language runs almost the full length of the space along the wall opposite the video installation; a tree diagrams the world's linguistic families. The timeline, which begins at 4,000 B.C., compares three parallel lines of linguistic development—African, Portuguese, and Amerindian—alongside significant historical artifacts.

Running down the middle of the hall are eight triangular, interactive kiosks with a monitor on each side; they trace the origins of ordinary words like garoto (Bantu for "boy") and carioca (Tupi for an inhabitant of Rio de Janeiro). Two of these "Crosswords" kiosks are dedicated to African languages, two to indigenous languages, one to Spanish, one to English and French, one to immigrant languages, and one to diasporic Portuguese.

Around the corner at the end of the long space is the Alley of Words, an alcove where word fragments are projected onto a tabletop. With the help of motion sensors, visitors can form words—think tactile etymology. In the auditorium, an expansive film uses voice, music, montage, and motion graphics to explore the evolution of language in a scholarly but accessible way: Imagine the movie Baraka high on linguistics.

Few of these exhibits are exactly as they were originally conceived. According to Dantas, "Five were redesigned from scratch. In many ways, we tropicalized them; in many ways, we radically changed it." By embracing in the creative process what Dantas calls Brazil's "history of assimilation, absorption, and transformation," the museum itself became that much more Brazilian.

Beyond its humanism, intellectual integrity, and conceptual richness, the museum breaks new aesthetic and technical ground. The artful, richly immersive multimedia are especially captivating for children, but everyone who enters is enveloped by the space's scale, scope, and interactivity; the museum effectively transforms visitors into collaborators. Its objects serve specifically to stimulate dialogue and participation.

The museum—"probably the biggest cultural project in Brazilian history," says Dantas—is already becoming a global benchmark. Appelbaum, a Peace Corps veteran, observes, "The biggest lesson I learned from Brazilians is that they truly believe that knowledge is a strategic developmental asset for their country. They believe that the smarter you are, the higher your standard of living will be." Indeed, many nations are realizing that museums have economic as well as social benefits. From Beijing to Stockholm, Appelbaum is creating blueprints designed to maximize the potential of a society's "most powerful latent asset: underrecognized, still buried and undiscovered aspects of [its] cultural heritage."

There are practical strategies to go with this philosophy, as Appelbaum notes: "If museums live at the intersection of heritage, education, and tourism, our job is to show them how to use their money in the right way"—for example, by appealing to the cultural consumers he calls the "knowledge tourist" or "heritage tourist." Embedded in his design ideology is a commitment to inventing ways for museums to become and remain self-sustainable.

Appelbaum proudly describes the museum today as "a lively place filled with voices and music, created either by the exhibits themselves or by the people's enthusiasm for sharing words." The Language Plaza—the museum's pièce de résistance—is a perfect demonstration of this idea. It's a 13-meter-high verbal planetarium with projections on the ceiling and walls above a reflective floor. Groups of strangers of all ages sit transfixed in silent awe, listening to poems and song lyrics and concentrating on the connections between the familiar voices and abstract visual interpretations. Rarely have Brazilian audiences sat so still and focused for so long.

As anyone who knows this country can tell you, Brazilians take raw material and turn it into magic. What if more people were able to wrap this improvisational force around a deeply informed understanding of their culture and language? The country may at last be witnessing a long-awaited educational renaissance: The museum has had 300,000 visitors in its first six months, more than all other Brazilian museums annually. Throughout the world, people are betting on Brazil's future, and it looks as though the Museum of the Portuguese Language will light the way.

The author thanks the following people for their generous help: Ralph Appelbaum, Marcello Dantas, Isa Grinspum, Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Jarbas Montovanini, Dilene Otto, and Ana Rosa Saraiva.

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