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A Word with Grant Barrett

Grant BarrettCo-host of A Way with Words joins the Museum of Man as its marketing manager

During the past few years, the San Diego Museum of Man has been in a period of reflection and reinvention. New staff and board leaders have increased its community engagement efforts and zeroed in on a new mission: to inspire human connections by exploring the human experience.

The transformation kicked off with the hiring of Dr. Micah Parzen, a community-minded lawyer who transitioned from his prior job as a partner at Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps, LLP, to become the museum’s Chief Executive Officer. Then Dr. Parzen brought on Hope Carlson, formerly the Executive Director of the San Diego Civic Youth Ballet and a graduate of Harvard Business School, to serve as Chief Development Officer.

The museum’s latest coup is Marketing Manager Grant Barrett, pictured at right. Public radio lovers may recognize his name from A Way with Words, a fun, hour-long show about language that Grant has co-hosted with Martha Barnette for six years (he’ll continue to work on the show).

A graduate of Columbia University, Grant is an American lexicographer and dictionary editor specializing in slang and new words. One of only few people in the country with this specialization, he writes the annual “Words of the Year” list for the New York Times (the 2012 edition will publish December 23) and serves as the vice-president of the American Dialect Society. Grant has also served as Engagement Editor for Voice of San Diego, a local nonprofit news organization.

A little more than a week into his new role at SDMOM, I met up with Grant to talk about his transition, his initial impressions, and where he’d like to see the museum go with its community engagement efforts. Somehow I neglected to ask him his opinion of, but he later sent a link to a blog post that includes some of his thoughts on UD and other user-editable dictionaries.

Five Questions for Grant Barrett

How have your first few days been at the museum?

Let me tell you a story. I’m walking down the Cabrillo Bridge eastward on Friday, headed toward the office, and I see some people bringing a 13-foot-long sealskin kayak across the courtyard. It’s my new coworkers bringing it from collections to the main building to put it on exhibit. The creative director -- the person who designs the exhibits and comes up with the logos and graphics -- is also helping.

It was a perfect illustration of what I’ve seen during my first days at the museum: If you need all hands, then all hands are willing. Not every place is like that, but it’s exactly what I want. I’m happy to have found it here.

What excites you about the museum?

On one hand, you’ve got a museum that’s changing, and on the other, you’ve got a museum that seems to be the same as it always was. There’s a friction in that: the time-honored exhibits and traditions versus the risk-taking, the adventurous programming, and the persistent outreach to new audiences. We get these two interesting batches of comments from people who come to the museum. Some say “Oh, it’s just how I remember it when I came as a kid!” and they take their kids to the evolution exhibit or the other things they remembered enjoying. I can’t tell you how many people have already told me they learned about the birds and the bees from our exhibit on human reproduction! So, for them the Museum is reliable, steadfast, consistent. You can go at any time.

Then we’ve got the others who talk about things like the “Instruments of Torture” exhibit or the "access/ABILITY" exhibit -- that one teaches you what it’s like to be a non-able-bodied person, to have problems with dyslexia, or walking, or using your hands. For those visitors, those exhibits show that the Museum is laden with potential and possibility, and they can look to us for intellectual stimulation. They look at our calendar as a menu to choose from throughout the year, with each exhibit feeling to them like an notable occasion or a must-do appointment.

Anything that has surprised you so far?

The museum is a staggering archive of humanity. There are about 100,000 significant artifacts, and 450,000 total. Swords, moccasins, beads, boats, pottery, bones, pictures, you name it. I’ve had two tours of the collection and I still cannot get my mind around it. There are shelves and shelves, room after room, of astonishing objects. You first go in there and say “oh, pots” and then you realize they are Mata Ortiz pots and then you learn the story of the Mata Ortiz village and how this particular design turned around the fortunes of the village. Everyone in the village is now somehow involved with the pots. And then you realize that every single thing on the shelf has a story. It has a provenance. There was a person behind it.

It reminds me very much of the work that I do for the radio show: each word has a history and a connection to people and events. It’s our job to find those stories, make them into a narrative, and present them to the world so that people can see something more than a dusty pot or a workaday word.

What else have you explored?

I particularly prize exhibits you can touch, such as the "access/ABILITY" exhibit. But especially the "Footsteps Through Time" exhibit, the one where you can put your own hand on top of the molded hands of other primates. Their thumb is down here, my thumb is up there. The pinky is kind of reduced. They grasp differently than I do. That’s a story that each visitor creates for themself in that moment when hand touches hand.

I know you’ve spent a lot of time in Balboa Park before working here. What are some of your favorite places in the park?

  • The hummingbird aviary in the San Diego Zoo can be very pleasant, if you can sit for a moment and let the birds flit around you.
  • The geocache hidden among the roots of the giant tree behind the Botanical Building!
  • Zoro Garden to look at the butterflies in their various stages.
  • The trails east of Florida Street -- the perfect size for my five-year-old son, with just enough sage, birds, snails, and rabbits to make it feel like a real trail hike.
  • The California Tower. I had a tour this week and it was amazing.

Check out the museum’s current exhibitions, “From the Vault,” Instruments of Torture,” “access/ABILITY” and “Adventures in Photography.” Support the San Diego Museum of Man by becoming a member ($20 students; $45 individuals; $60 families). Learn more at

--Maren Dougherty