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Upcoming Planet Word Museum Celebrates Language—and Is Slated to Be Talk of the Town

The Washington, D.C.-based museum will open its doors on May 31

A rendering of the upcoming Planet Word museum's Great Hall, which will feature an LED globe showcasing dozens of languages from around the world (Courtesy of the Planet World Museum)
smithsonianmag.com

Words aren’t just meant to be heard: Far more than the sum of its constituent characters, language is a crucial aspect of how humans navigate the world around them. And with the much-anticipated Planet Word museum slated to open its Washington, D.C. doors on May 31, logophiles will finally have the chance to see this devotion on display.

Described by founder Ann Friedman as a museum “that will bring language to life,” Planet Word will showcase ten immersive galleries bursting with a bevy of word-centric exhibits, reported Peggy McGlone for the Washington Post last November. In one room, visitors will have the chance to design their own marketing campaigns; in another, they’ll be able to dip high-tech brushes into “palettes” of words and “paint” pictures that reflect their meaning.

“If you pick the word hibernal, the scene around you will transform into a wintertime scene,” Friedman told Washingtonian’s Nathan Diller last year.

The largest room in the 51,000-square-foot building will feature a multicolored, 12-foot-tall globe that invites viewers to explore the world and its languages, learning culturally specific words at each destination. Programmed to respond to more than 30 languages, including two types of sign language, the exhibit even reacts to visitors’ speech.

The museum’s courtyard, meanwhile, will host a dazzling 20-foot-tall tree sculpture called The Speaking Willow. Crafted by Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, the work projects snippets of famous poems and speeches in dozens of different languages when patrons stroll beneath its branches, according to Mikaela Lefrak of WAMU.

“I hope that when people leave Planet Word … they will have a new empathy for the people who don’t sound like them,” said Friedman to Washingtonian.

For those who want to escape the hustle and bustle, Planet Word’s second floor will feature a quiet space dedicated to poetry. Here, visitors can sit, relax and read as poems appear and fade on the walls.

Planet Word isn’t the first museum to enter the language lover’s arena, and given its American locale, it does place a heavier focus on English. But D.C.’s newest word-focused fixture is notable for its technologically savvy interactive approach, made possible in part by Friedman’s personal financial backing. Per the Washington Post, the museum’s construction—a restoration of the historic Franklin School—cost more than $25 million. One of the District of Columbia’s first public schools, Franklin boasts its own spectacular speech history: It was the spot where Alexander Graham Bell first successfully transmitted a voice via a beam of light in 1880.

Billed free of admission, Planet Word is also meant to highlight the importance of literacy, which has faltered in the United States, according to the museum’s website. But the institution’s goals extend beyond practicality: “What is magical about reading is how we move from learning to read, to reading to learn, and then loving to read,” says Ralph R. Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, in a statement. “Planet Word will be nothing less than a bold attempt to capture and share the magic.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a Digital Editor at NOVA Next and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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