Words matter. That’s the message at Planet Word, Washington D.C.’s newest museum, which opened its doors to the public on October 22. Built on an idea rather than a collection of objects, the interactive museum brings language to life with unique, immersive experiences for people of all ages. As the world’s first voice-activated museum, Planet Word has something for everyone, offering a distinctive, engaging and safe museum experience.
On a recent trip to the museum, my children, grandchildren and I found much to delight in at Planet Word. The museum is housed in the historic Franklin School, the site of one of the city’s first public schools and the world’s first wireless voice transmission, a feat achieved by Alexander Graham Bell in 1880 using his photophone invention. The museum is the brainchild of my friend, retired school teacher and philanthropist Ann Friedman, whose deft educator’s touch is felt throughout the cleverly designed galleries that quickly draw in old and young visitors. Ann is fond of saying that language is “our human superpower,” and her museum balances the joy and whimsy of words with a more serious investigation of why literacy is critical to democracy.
“Readers are more likely to be volunteers, to be active in their communities and to vote. So, I wanted to find a way to engage people of all ages with words and language, books and reading – and a museum seemed like the way to go,” Ann says. “With Planet Word, we are able to combine informal education with exciting experiences where visitors, especially young ones, can both fall in love with words and understand how vital they are to our world. I hope that Planet Word can provide a forum for civil discourse and a place where our community, in all its vibrant diversity, can gather to share the words that bridge differences and forge solutions.”
Ann’s mission is a profound one, but Planet Word remains dynamic, fun and visually stunning – replete with exhibits that engage museum-goers in complex ideas without them realizing how much they are learning. One room, for example, has been transformed into a modern karaoke lounge, merging an opportunity to sing along to your favorite tunes with a lesson on the techniques great songwriters use to write memorable lyrics. Budding comics, meanwhile, will enjoy the “Joking Around” gallery where visitors pose in life-sized frames to act out idioms as fellow visitors try to guess the meaning. Everyone in my family also had fun trying to make each other chortle with the Don’t Make Me Laugh joke-telling experience. In other galleries, families can create an advertising campaign, deliver a rousing speech or hear poems read aloud in a secret nook of the museum’s library.
At Planet Word, surprising ways to interact with language await at every turn – and nowhere is that more apparent than in the museum’s unique voice-activated exhibits that will awe and delight all. In one exhibit, museum-goers encounter a massive word wall composed of over 1,000 three-dimensional words. The wall speaks, asking visitors questions and responding with lively voice, sound, animation and lighting effects. In the museum’s magical library gallery (a particular favorite of my grandchildren), nine artist-commissioned dioramas, each illustrating a scene from a book, hide behind secret mirrors embedded in the bookshelves. Passages from the books are etched into plaques below the mirrors – and when visitors read the passage aloud, the mirror illuminates as if by magic to reveal the diorama behind it, perfectly capturing the wonder of books. Our visit to Planet Word sparked our imaginations, broadened our perspectives and showed the different generations of my family how language can inspire, transport and move us.
Planet Word will also take families on a linguistic tour of the globe – an especially enticing prospect as the pandemic takes international travel off the table for most Americans. In the expansive Great Hall, virtual “language ambassadors” – including Navajo, Amharic, Zulu and American Sign Language representatives – teach visitors to speak or sign a few phrases from their language. Elsewhere, a portal outfitted with immersive AV technology allows visitors to interact with people from around the world as if in the same room. This experience is part of Planet Word’s partnership with Shared Studios, a global collective that uses immersive technology to create meaningful human connections between people separated by distance and difference.
Planet Word has also taken numerous COVID-19 safety precautions, ensuring everyone feels protected without sacrificing the unique interactive experience. All visitors receive a stylus pen so that they can interact with touch screens without touching them, face masks are required and timed tickets mean social distancing in the galleries is easy and stress-free.
Admission is free. To book tickets at Planet Word, and to learn more about the museum, visit planetwordmuseum.org.