Planet Word: Inside Washington's newest museum dedicated to language

Founder Ann Friedman describes the museum as a place where words come to life

“Marhaba, I’m Tamer and I’m from Lebanon,” says a voice from one of the many screens placed around a brilliantly coloured globe. “I speak Arabic,” the man says, before going into detail about how words are formed in the language.

You can even interact with Tamer as he takes you through the basics of Arabic.

Nearby, you can interact with another screen and learn about Hebrew.

“Chutzpah has come to mean boldness or self confidence, but in Hebrew, it originally meant cheeky and disrespectful,” a female voice explains.

It makes for a unique experience that gives the visitor an incredible amount of control at Planet Word, one of Washington’s newest museums.

There's a 22-foot-tall wall of words inside Planet Word where visitors can interact with a computer and learn about the origins behind the English language. 
There's a six-metre-tall wall of words inside Planet Word where visitors can interact with a computer and learn about the origins behind the English language.

After the opening in October 2020, The National had the opportunity to go on a tour of the museum with its founder and chief executive, Ann Friedman. “Planet Word is an experiential museum about words and language, and all the things you can do with them,” she explained.

Washington is filled with more than 70 museums dedicated to subjects as broad as aviation and as specific as bonsais, according to MuseumHack.com.

The Spoken World exhibit at Planet Word allows visitors to dive headfirst into the diversity of languages from around the world. 
The Spoken World exhibit at Planet Word allows visitors to dive headfirst into the diversity of languages from around the world.

So what makes Planet Word different?

“Most museums are built on a collection of objects, but not Planet Word; it’s based on concepts that we bring to life through our experiences and our exhibits.”

Friedman says she was inspired to start a museum like this in 2012, when she read an article about a museum that had just opened in New York City, dedicated to mathematics.

“I was a reading and writing teacher and when I retired I wondered what to do next … and when I read that article I thought, ‘If you can bring math to life in a museum, why not try that with words and language?’”

Located inside the historic Franklin School building constructed in 1869, Planet Word sits just a few blocks from the White House in Washington. 
Located inside the historic Franklin School building constructed in 1869, Planet Word sits just a few blocks from the White House in Washington.

The museum is located just a few blocks from the White House in a national historic landmark called the Franklin School, which was built in 1869. It once served as a model for public schools across the US. The refurbished building now serves as a model for what museums can be for visitors.

In one particular exhibit area, you can pick a book off the shelf, place it on a desk and watch words and animations spring off the page. It’s an effect that’s difficult to describe in words (funnily enough), but definitely worth seeing in person.

There’s also an interactive wall where visitors can stand in front of 1,000 words and interact with microphones. “Can you guess the 10 most common words in English?” the computer asks, waiting for you to answer.

One exhibit inside Planet Word takes a close look at how words have been used through the years for the purposes of advertising products and services. 
One exhibit inside Planet Word takes a close look at how words have been used through the years for the purposes of advertising products and services.

If you’ve ever wanted to paint with words, odd though it might sound, Planet Word makes it possible. You simply pick up a paint brush in one of the interactive rooms, select the word you want, and witness the wall change depending on which word you chose.

“See, the word hibernal turns the rain into snow,” said Friedman as she painted.

Have you ever wanted to try and replicate some of the greatest words ever spoken? That, too, is possible in yet another exhibit. Simply select a popular speech and read the teleprompter just as your favourite world leader, politician or pundit would.

“It’s pretty dang cool,” said Carl Clark, a Washingtonian visiting Planet Word for the first time. “Just the idea of looking at language this way and learning about its structure and why it’s valuable to different cultures is absolutely fascinating.”

Visitors can also see how words have been twisted throughout the years for the purposes of advertising in various mediums. The techniques used by advertisers are displayed on a curved interactive display complete with quizzes, classic ads and brand strategies.

The content also extends to the outdoors, as outside the museum you'll find exhibits such as a tree-like structure that activates different sounds and dialects used all over the world depending on where visitors walk.

Friedman said a lot of thought has gone into every aspect of the museum’s design.

“We supplement the galleries and the participatory exhibits with beautiful things to look at. There are words on the walls of every gallery and there’s something to see and think about wherever you look and whatever you do in the museum and I’m very proud of that.”

She also spoke about the strong sense of language diversity in almost every room. “I want to make people aware, empathetic and understanding."

General admission to the museum is free, with a suggested $15 donation to support the museum’s mission-driven programmes, exhibits and educational outreach.

Visitors of all ages can learn more about words with the help of various interactive exhibits and exercises placed throughout the museum. 
Visitors of all ages can learn more about words with the help of various interactive exhibits and exercises placed throughout the museum.

The museum is temporarily closed because of the pandemic, but you can follow the latest developments and updates for eventual reopening plans on Planet Word’s website.

"We plan to keep it busy day and night with author talks and poetry slams and concerts," Friedman said, referring to the museum in a post-Covid Washington. "Anything you can imagine."

Updated: February 24, 2021 01:23 PM

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