Where Language Comes to Life is the motto at Planet Word, a museum in Washington DC that opened in October. Nominated for USA Today’s Best New Attraction, the museum brings together language, technology, and ingenuity to create a fun experience for people of any age or literacy level. It features a host of interactive exhibits, many with 3-D and voice recognition, as well as an upcoming word game mystery adventure village.
We spoke with Planet Word Founder and CEO Ann B. Friedman to learn more about Planet Word, the exhibits the museum features, and the journey Ann has taken to bring Planet Word, and language, to life.
Can you share a little about yourself and your team? How did Planet Word come about?
Late in life, I became a teacher and for nine years taught beginning reading and writing to first graders. I began right as I was earning my master’s in teaching, so I was really up to date on methodology. This helped a lot; kids in first grade, you really have to teach them everything, to read, to write, to spell, exposing them to poetry, narrative and persuasive writing, essentially founding their fundamentals in literacy. It is very rewarding to see their eyes light up about poetry and word play. I found it more rewarding than I ever expected.
Then I retired in 2011, and I had this background in literacy and in education, from both my teaching experience and my experience with the SEED Foundation, which runs the nation’s only inner-city public college-prep boarding schools. As chair of the SEED Foundation for six years, I became intimately familiar with the problems of inner-city education and the different techniques for teaching literacy.
So I looked around to figure out what I would do with my background, hoping to discover something meaningful and flexible. I came across a story about MoMath in New York City, a new museum of mathematics that used technology to bring abstract concepts to life in a fun way. I started researching museums, and the phrase informal education kept popping up. I realized that is what I wanted to try, but for words and language. I wanted to find a way to re-engage people of any age with words and language because all the trends in society — in America, in particular — were going the wrong way.
I started jotting down ideas for what concepts were essential and possible to be brought to life. I got to about thirty and realized the possibilities, but I did not know anything about running a museum or even founding a museum. So I went on the web and searched museum consulting. I found the Lord Cultural Resources, which is one of the leading museum consulting firms, and I cold called them.
They assigned me to their team in New York City and really took my idea seriously. They conducted a 90-page market analysis and reached out to professors and visitor services people in DC, and the feedback coming back was all very positive. Once we had that base covered, I still was concerned about the idea for exhibits.
We decided to conduct four focus groups, two with 10-12-year-olds and two with their parents. We asked them what would you think about a place where X happens? We did not call it a museum; we just put the idea out there. Many of the participants reacted with excitement, saying, “Well, you’re talking about a word museum.” The facilitator for these focus groups even said that in her 25 years running focus groups, she had never seen such a positive response to an idea. At that point, I knew we had something special, and I had to keep pushing the idea forward.
I applied for and received non-profit status and founded a board of friends and colleagues with experience in specific areas where I needed help. I knew I needed lawyers, people in real-estate and finance, and museum educators, so I gathered that group together, and they gave me a goal — that in 3 ½ years from that first board meeting, I would find an executive director, launch a website, and find a home for the museum. That all happened well within that time frame.
In 2017, a committee of the board did an executive search with a national search firm to find an executive director, and we found Patty Isacson Sabee, who came from running MoPOP (Museum of Pop Culture) in Seattle — the experience music project — for 10 years, and before that she had been at the Seattle Symphony, where she oversaw the building of the Benaroya Hall. With her experience in overseeing a construction project and running a big museum, we felt very lucky to have her on the team.
By January 2018, I had the lease on the Franklin School — which is our national historic landmark home — from the Washington DC government. We started construction in April 2018, which consisted mostly of hazardous material abatement. The building was 101 years old and had been abandoned and neglected for ten years, so it was full of lead paint, mold, and bird droppings, and it was even raining inside the building when I went in one day. It was in that bad of shape.
We cleaned everything up, and I brought in a contractor, architects, and a fabrication company, and we hired Local Projects – an experienced design firm in New York City — to plan and design the exhibits.
It sounds like you really had your work cut out for you.
Yes, it was quite a challenge. I had built our house and done renovations, and I had come from a family with a real-estate background, so I went in thinking it would be no sweat. However, restoring a national historic landmark and dealing with all the oversight bodies and not being able to touch the exterior and not being able to do everything you want to do on the interior because you have to protect the historic features was another layer of complication. It would have been hard enough to build this museum because the exhibits are extraordinarily complex and high-tech like no one has ever seen before and no one has ever built before. So integrating that into this old building where our construction ideas were limited just added another layer of complication. But here we are. We did it.
I do not know if I shared this with in our email exchange, but in 1880 Alexander Graham Bell sent a message using what he called a photo phone, which was a message using only light from the building. So the Franklin School – our home – was a national historic landmark not only for its innovative architecture, but also because Bell conducted a successful experiment that was basically the birth of wireless. The fact that our exhibits combine education and literacy with technology is such a perfect match for the historic origins of the building.
As someone who grew up in California, I associate an interactive museum experience with places like the San Jose Technology Museum and the San Francisco Exploratorium. You mentioned the MoMath in New York City as one of your inspirations. Did you make your way to the west coast too?
Yes, both of those museums were great role models for me. I had a one-day tour at the Exploratorium with Tom Rockwell, the head of exhibits, and I got plenty of ideas for what I could do with a word museum. But there were also lessons at some museums about what I did not want to do. I wanted to make sure that the technology was always in service to the concept that we were trying to get across.
At a museum in Chicago, I saw kids using a touchscreen table as a bongo drum. They clearly were not getting anything out of it that the exhibit was meant to provide. The technology was beside the point. They did not understand what the exhibit was about, so the fact that it was on this high-tech touch screen surface did not matter. So I really wanted the technology to be in service to what we were trying to get across.
Can you tell me about some notable exhibits at Planet Word?
Our tag line is Where language comes to life. We really achieved that in our library. It is a high-ceilinged space lined with bookshelves, and there is a mirrored ceiling, which magnifies the height of the space. It is quite magical when you come in. If you take one of the books and place it in a special cradle on our central-story table, it comes to life in front of you: a projection begins, and there is a script we wrote for each of our selected books.
There are fifty books that we selected for the exhibition, and we had a different artistic approach for each book. Sometimes it is accompanied by sound effects. There is always a narrator reading a script, but they are not reading the book. We had three types of narrators: the authors themselves, voice actors, and fans of the book who wanted to give testimonials. For some, we wrote what are basically trailers for every book to get people to say I want to read the book. We wanted just to give everyone enough of a sense of the book to make them want to learn more.
Our books span everything from picture books to books for adults. We purposefully did not select classics or anything that someone would already be assigned to read in school. We also wanted them to represent every type of person, ethnicity, interest, gender, sexual orientation, so that whoever comes into the library can find something that represents them and their interests. That is also true throughout the museum: we always have a wide diversity of content so that there is something for everyone. What then seems to happen, though, is that everyone goes from book-to-book to see what unique qualities each book brings to the exhibit.
We also have our iconic gallery, Where Do Words Come From? which is an etymology exhibit that uses projection technology and sound effects to tell the story of English and how words were incorporated into the English language. We built a 40’ x 22’ word wall with over 1,000 three-dimensional words stacked on top of each other.
Using voice recognition technology, we made it possible for a narrator not just to tell this story, but also interact with viewers. We have some different categories; if the narrator says a word like portmanteau, then the different portmanteau words that we selected from the word wall will leap out. When the visitor chooses a word through voice recognition, the narrator then responds with the story of that particular word, and the software provides a multimedia experience with imagery and animation. It is a lot of fun. No one has ever seen anything like this.
The English major and amateur medievalist in me is imagining the Oxford English Dictionary coming to life. Does the exhibit go into the ancestry of Old English and the transformations once French influence came into the language?
It does go into those histories, but only at an introductory level to get the main point across that English — and language itself — is always changing. Besides bringing language to life, the museum is also trying to help people understand and appreciate that language is alive, and that we should not be afraid of that, but celebrate the vitality of language. It is more of a de-scriptive museum, rather than pre-scriptive. We want everyone to be welcome no matter how they talk. We do not say what is wrong and right or try to push grammar conventions. We are simply in awe of what people can do with words and how flexible and enjoyable our language can be.
For the word wall, I knew we needed to map out where words come from, so I sent a list to the exhibit designers that went through different possible origins. It could be anatomical: what sounds can our throats and teeth and tongue make? Or it could be words arriving through war and conflict. We also borrow words from other cultures and languages. We invent words.
We came up with 24 different ways that words have come into the English language, but then whittled that down to eight main origins, from the ancestral languages to the invented or portmanteau words. That is the story we tell. If you sit through that presentation, you will come away remembering those key factors. We are really trying to drive home the idea that language is constantly changing and that there are certain key derivations with the words that we use.
One of the missions of Planet Word is to promote linguistic diversity. Can you talk a little about how you do this?
Our largest gallery is called The Spoken World, and we have 28 language ambassadors and two signers, who teach visitors many lessons about their respective languages. We have chosen the most unique characteristics of each language that would be fun for people to learn. The language ambassadors appear on iPads and interact with you through voice recognition. They teach you about their language and encourage you to try and say a word or phrase in that language over and over again.
The dominant feature of the gallery is a 12-foot diameter globe hanging from the 22-foot ceiling and covered with 4,800 LED’s. At the end of the mini lesson, the iPad will say look up, and the LED’s will display something related to the lesson you were just learning. For the Hebrew lesson, for example, the last part of the lesson is on the chet, glottal sound. The narrator encourages you to say L’chaim, and when you do, the globe above you displays two champagne glasses clinking together.
In that way, it is another example of something unique coming out of each lesson and the positive reinforcement that makes you want to try another language. Not only are people learning about these languages, but they are also getting the chance to try speaking them. We have a wide variety of languages, like the more common Spanish, Russian, and French, but also Click languages, Indigenous languages, and some endangered languages. We also tried to incorporate languages from the immigrant communities most represented in DC, like Korean and Amharic.
Our goal is to intrigue you enough to want to pursue these languages further once you leave the museum.
Obviously, it is impossible to know what is going to happen a week from now in our present moment, let alone a year or more, but what are you looking forward to in 2021?
We technically opened on October 22 of this year, but we are not done. We still have parts of the museum coming online, hopefully by late spring 2021. We also have a restaurant called Immigrant Food coming in to work with us, which has a fusion menu with cuisine from different immigrant groups.
And then we have whole gallery that will be a paid experience called Lexicon Lane, which will be a word-sleuthing adventure village. It will be built out to look like an English village with shops, a park, and a university. Participants will receive a case, and inside the case will be a word mystery adventure. There are 26 cases representing a particular letter, which will lead to its own word game mystery. This whole village is being created by a game company from Seattle, and it is really going to appeal to the word game community. There is nothing technological at all; it is all analog. There are places where you can sit and solve these word puzzles in a very unique space.
We obviously cannot use our auditorium, and all the programming, classes, and field trips that would have kept the museum buzzing until we are through the pandemic. Right now, we are planning a lot of virtual events. Our education coordinator has been conducting several virtual field trips for school groups every day, and she has 14 within the next six days. People are hungry for programming on the language arts and humanities, which very few museums in Washington offer, so we are filling a void.
If our readers wanted to follow Planet Word, how could they find you?
We are on all social media platforms at the following links: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and you can access our website here. You can also sign up for our newsletter or our membership program to receive benefits. Keeping up with us is very easy.
One exciting piece of news that came out of the blue was that we were recently nominated for the USA Today Best New Attraction in the US, so visit their site before December 21 and vote for Planet Word! Follow this link to vote, and vote more than once!