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If you regularly read Lifestyles After 50, you already love words, and this new, free museum in Washington D.C. will make you treasure them even more.
Located in the historic 1869 Franklin School where Alexander Graham Bell sent the first wireless communication on the photophone which used light beams to send sounds in 1880, this red brick building designed by architect Adolf Cluss has been refurbished and restored.
The museum is dedicated to language and its goal is to inspire and renew a love of words, language and reading for people of all ages. It was the creation of reading teacher and real estate heiress Ann Friedman and her husband, New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman, whose goal is to build community knowing that communication and language is what connects us. Everything that is exchanged, defined or understood needs words (except art, music and religion).
To accomplish that goal, the $60 million museum looks at ways we learn, use and manipulate words and grammar. Friedman, whose father was the billionaire shopping mogul Matthew Bucksbaum, spent $35 million of her own money on the restoration of the school and then raised $25 million for exhibitions created by Local Projects designer which also did the 9/11 Museum in New York. But Friedman wanted visitors to be more aware of something they use daily – words. Additional money was donated by AT&T and Michael Bloomberg. Friedman pays $10 a year on a 99-year lease and started the project in 2013.
What does this word museum contain?
Planet Word consists of ten galleries and is truly a gift for those who love language. When you first enter the courtyard, you face a speaking willow tree where each frond of the tree ends in a small speaker that plays any of the hundreds of languages spoken around the world. The museum’s lobby displays early forms of writing from cave paintings to cuneiform symbols. Even the restrooms remind you that there are a million ways to express yourself so different phrases adorn the walls such as: “freshen up,” “powder one’s nose,” “take a tinkle,” “go potty,” etc.
Your tour begins on the third floor as each of the galleries, heavily dependent on technology, is organized around a different use of language. You can choose your own adventure where you shout out a word and a computer plays a little known lesson about onomatopoeia or portmanteau. The object here is to celebrate the amazing, fun and wonderful ways that people use words and phrases in different circumstances. Friedman says, “You can talk to exhibits, but you have to use your voice and get involved.”
Every room highlights the urge to communicate which turns baby babble into complex languages so you can even deliver powerful speeches. Interactive video screens, play spaces, games, voice activated exhibits and styluses for the touch screens let you play by reading, singing, speaking and sharing, all to make you more aware of the language we use and how words are heard because Friedman believes literacy is the heart of democracy.
The Great Hall features a 12-foot computerized globe that lights up when you interact with the tables arranged around it. At the interactive light show on the development of English, microphones in front of a 20-foot tall wall covered with 1,000 words allow you to call out words and hear their origins. You can even get tips on pronunciation via iPad with videos from coaches.
Lessons are offered including one on how deaf people communicate differently in different countries because American sign-language isn’t universal. It’s magical when you speak to mirrors on the wall and they reveal miniature 3-D interpretations of scenes from your favorite novels. There’s even a bookshelf that’s a door to a secret poetry nook.
That magical library holds books that come alive with video montages and animation. You can pick a book, put it on the table, and a projector places animation over the pages while speaking commentary on the texts.
In “Word Worlds”, you can paint a digital mural after selecting dozens of qualities like “nostalgic,” “surreal,” “nocturnal” or “tempestuous” to digitally paint over a panoramic image of nature by dipping the brush into your descriptive word.
In “Lend Me Your Ears”, video clips of famous speeches are heard and you can enter a recording booth to deliver your own in front of a teleprompter. There’s even a karaoke lounge to sing songs chosen for various songwriters’ attributes and to demonstrate the various techniques found in popular song lyrics.
In the “Words Matter” gallery, videos of people telling their personal stories can be heard and a recording booth invites you to share your own story. It’s especially meaningful when artists and story tellers talk about how language affects their lives and identities. One gallery holds a video montage of children learning to speak their first words.
In Gallery Two, a 20-foot wall of words is an interactive display that traces the complexity of the linguistic roots of English. The diversity of the world’s languages allows you to hear native speakers of many languages explain the differences in grammar and linguistic richness that create different understandings of the world and the concept of time.
Other galleries explore rhetoric, the word play that fuels jokes and the language used in advertising to sell us products and manipulate our emotions. Friedman insisted that galleries appeal mostly to 10 through 12-year-olds because that’s when most kids stop reading for pleasure. She says, “They are on the cusp of adolescence and developing the cognitive ability and empathy to care what others think and to know about the world.”
Planet Word also has an auditorium, two classrooms, two event spaces and even a quiet room where authors can read their prose and poetry. Soon, a word puzzle exhibit will open and a restaurant where different cultures will offer their languages and food.
Founder Freidman has definitely achieved her goal of showing us that the way we learn, use and manipulate words and grammar defines us. She wants to make books and words in language awesome and able to capture our imagination. She convincingly says, “Communication is the cure, reading is a form of cultural exploration, and language connects rather than divides us.” Her museum is proof positive.
The museum is open from Thursdays through Saturdays from 10-5 p.m. It is located at 925 13th St. in NW DC. Take the McPherson Square Metro stop. A free stylus pen is available to use with interactive devices. The phone number is 202-931-3139. See planetwordmusem.org