Standing under the artificial willow tree in the entrance courtyard of the new Planet Word Museum, a visitor hears voices speaking in dozens of different languages. The sound-and-light sculpture, “Speaking Willow,” as it is called, created by sculptor Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, features 364 individual speakers and 3.6 miles of ethernet cable. Welcome to Planet Word, Washington D.C.’s newest high tech museum.
Describing itself as “The museum where language comes to life,” Planet Word is dedicated primarily to the English language, and includes inter-active exhibits relating to such topics as how children learn words, the use of words in literature and advertising, jokes, and the origins of English. Planet Word is the world’s first voice-activated museum, featuring immersive galleries.
The museum is the brainchild of philanthropist Ann B. Friedman, once an elementary school reading teacher. Mrs. Friedman obtained a 99 year lease from the city of Washington which owns the historic 19th century Franklin School, a beautiful, abandoned building fallen into disrepair. In exchange for the lease, Mrs. Friedman agreed to renovate the building and she did so using her own money. The result is a magnificent building with spacious high-ceilinged rooms and tall, elegant windows. The museum is entirely privately funded and does not charge admission. It opened in October of 2020, but had to close after two weeks because of the pandemic. It re-opened in April of this year.
The exhibits of Planet Word are designed to appeal to ten to twelve year old children. According to the museum, Mrs. Friedman believed that it is children of that age who are most likely to stop being readers, to stop reading for pleasure. The museum, however, delights visitors of all ages and offers surprises, whimsy and information for adults as well as adolescents.
Words are everywhere, even in the bathrooms and the gift shop; the elevator walls contain photographic murals of books. Exhibits start on the third floor where visitors enter the large “globe room.” An enormous glass globe fills the center of the room. The globe can rise to become a chandelier, or compress itself to lie on the floor, somewhat in the style of Alice’s adventures down the rabbit hole, but in this case with the magic of technology rather than mushrooms.
Around the room are a dozen slim black stations with monitors, each with a native speaker from another country, explaining to the visitor what is unique about his or her own language and explaining how differences in grammar and linguistic richness can create fundamentally different conceptual understanding of the world.
In another gallery, an interactive 20-foot “Wall of Words” traces the complexity of the linguistic roots of English. The black and white wall changes into bright, colored panels; it poses questions out loud and replies when spoken to by visitors. The talking wall shares the origins of English words, highlighting the languages that underlie the words we use today, including the ten most used words.
The center piece of the second floor is a splendid library. In the middle is a long table with a shelf holding both children’s and adults’ books. Take a book, open it to any page and place the page beneath the shelf on the table; a light comes on and the chosen page is read aloud.
Scattered on the walls are what appear to be windows, below each of which is a poem or saying. When a viewer repeats the inscribed words, the “window” lights up to reveal a small, delightful, witty panorama, each of which has been created by a different artist.
Among other delights on the second floor are a secret door leading into a quiet poetry corner, a small room dedicated to public speaking where visitors can repeat or mimic recorded speeches in a recording booth. In a karaoke lounge, you can sing songs chosen for their various songwriting attributes. There is a space devoted to jokes.
“Word Worlds” invites a visitor to “paint” on a digital mural. There are a series of open pots below a rural scene. Each pot is labeled with a different mood, such as “nocturnal” or ”autumn.” When a brush is dipped into, for example, the “surreal” pot, distorted images appear over the wall painting. Dip a brush into the pot labeled “tempestuous,” or the one labeled “luminous” and see how a swipe transforms the landscape. Thus are words translated into images.
The main floor demonstrates how we use language, including up-to-date slang words. There are exhibits of words as they are pronounced in different geographic regions, of how language is used in criminology, in expressing emotions, and the manipulative power of words in advertising. Visitors are invited to make their own advertising slogans, which are then included in the exhibits. A new exhibit on words that wound is contemplated.
The museum has classroom space and a 150-seat auditorium. It is partnering with the city’s schools and libraries, but for the time being, field trips for students are virtual. Once the pandemic restrictions are over, the fourth floor rooms and roof terrace will be used for events.
A cafe is planned for the near future, a satellite of Chef Enrique Limardo’s restaurant, Immigrant Food, with the same focus on creative dishes inspired by immigrant stories. In the meantime, the French cafe-bakery chain Paul (1275 K St. NW, 202-506-4471, open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.), is located across the street from the museum. Light fare, including French style sandwiches, quiches and excellent pastries, is available. Or, take a picnic to Franklin Park Square facing the museum. The park has been undergoing renovation for the past year but is soon to reopen. It features a restaurant and pavilion, an expanded and restored fountain plaza, a new children’s garden and walkways beneath a canopy of trees.
Planet Word is a unique museum dedicated to the power, beauty, and fun of the English language, as well as showing how important language is to our every day lives. The museum offers a visual and intellectual treat to visitors of all ages.
At present, Planet Word is open on Thursdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free, but timed entry passes are required. Passes are released on the first of each month for the month following. Walk-ins are sometimes available.
924 13th Street, NW
Washington D.C. 20005
Corinna Lothar is a Washington D.C. writer, critic and lawyer. She has traveled all over the world, wiring about food, travel and culture.