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Planet Word, world’s first voice-activated museum, opens in Washington, D.C.

by Susan and Simon Veness

What better way to bring words “to life” than through a voice-activated museum? Planet Word in Washington, D.C. reimagines the museum experience, inspiring visitors to “fall in love with the joy and whimsy of words.”

planet word
Photos courtesy of Planet Word Museum

Imagine walking into a courtyard and being met by a Speaking Willow sculpture that plays voice recordings in hundreds of different languages as you walk underneath its branches. And that’s just the beginning. Planet Word’s three floors of galleries and exhibits use technology in imaginative, ingenious ways.

Start on the upper floor, where you’ll find:

  • First Words: Watch as the childhood journey toward speaking a first language unfolds.
  • Where Do Words Come From: This 22-foot-tall wall “speaks for itself” as it shares the story of the English language through voice-activated conversations with visitors, and spectacular lighting effects.
  • The Spoken Word: Discover the diversity of dialects from around the world while engaging with speakers and signers of widely-spoken and endangered languages as they delve into the unique elements of their native tongue.
planet word

The middle floor contains five additional exhibits:

  • Lend Me Your Ears: Using a teleprompter, visitors can deliver one of eight famous historical speeches in an acoustically-sealed room.
  • Word Worlds: Grab a “smart” paintbrush, dip it into verdant, surreal, or luminous, and paint with words, transforming the room with color, sound, and motion.
  • The Library: This magical library contains a secret poetry nook where books “come to life,” and additional secrets are waiting to be uncovered.
  • Unlock the Music: Go full-on karaoke! Then, learn the techniques artists use to create hit songs.
  • Joking Around: What tickles your funny bone? Find out in this gallery of humor.

The lower floor contains two more exhibits:

  • I’m Sold!: Learn how advertisers use words and phrases to make their product stand out, and try your hand at creating an advertisement.
  • Words Matter: This exhibit speaks to the very core of the museum’s mission – discovering how words shape our lives, our decisions, and our relationships. Step into a fully-equipped recording booth to record your own story of how words changed your life, and listen to previous visitors’ stories.

Through its six core values of participation—play, spontaneity, confidence building, literacy, and strengthened community—the museum opens up a nurturing space for visitors to experience words and language from a wide range of perspectives, all geared toward showing the power, beauty, and fun of vocabulary and its role in shaping the human experience. The belief that literacy is fundamental to the health of a democracy is a founding principle.

planet word

The institution’s founder and CEO Ann Friedman says, “I am so thrilled to open Planet Word’s doors to the public and cannot imagine a more fitting time for a museum of language to open in our nation’s capital. Democracy depends on literate citizens. I hope that Planet Word can provide a forum for civil discourse and a place where our community, in all its vibrant diversity, can gather to share the words that bridge differences and forge solutions.”

The museum is housed in the National Historic Landmark-designated Franklin School, site of one of D.C.’s first public schools and the spot where Alexander Graham Bell sent the world’s first wireless voice transmission in 1880. In addition to creating 10 thoroughly modern, high-tech galleries, the building’s transformation added a gift shop, while Spring 2021 will see the arrival of the cause-casual eatery, Immigrant Foods, whose flagship restaurant is located next to the White House and receives rave reviews.

Planet Word’s mostly virtual opening celebration was attended by District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, who stated, “Planet Word, much like Washington, D.C., is all about celebrating art, creativity, and innovation. This beautiful museum has found the perfect home in Downtown D.C. at the former Franklin School, where children and families alike will enjoy a one-of-a-kind cultural and educational experience.”

planet word

The galleries are open Thursday-Saturday from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., and general admission is free. Donations of $15 per person are requested to support the museum’s exhibits, programs, and educational outreach.

As the global pandemic continues, daily entry passes are limited and timed to assist in physical distancing. Face masks are mandatory for all visitors ages 3 and up, stylus pens will be available to avoid touching surfaces, and hand sanitizing stations are located throughout the museum.

For more information or to register for timed tickets, visit PlanetWorldMuseum.org.

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