When she taught first-graders in Bethesda public schools, Ann Friedman relied on activities to engage them. Playing games, reciting poetry, putting on plays — all were roads to learning how to read.
The museum is expected to open May 31 with 10 immersive galleries that will explore language in novel and entertaining ways, according to its founder. One gallery will boast a 12-foot, high-wattage globe where visitors can choose various languages and learn a few culturally specific words and phrases. Contemporary artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer was commissioned to create an interactive work that has hundreds of speakers programmed with snippets of famous poems and speeches. On the second floor, a quiet space offers audio of poems with the words screened on the walls. Visitors will be invited to solve puzzles, listen to poetry and paint pictures with words and encouraged to try their skills at delivering famous speeches and creating a marketing pitch. Planet Word will also have an auditorium, classrooms, a restaurant and gift shop. Admission will be free.
Think science museum — but for the humanities.
“People are going to have so much fun and be amazed by the technology and the ways we have been able to bring language to life,” said Friedman, who lives in Bethesda with her husband, New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman, who serves on the museum’s board of directors. Friedman is the daughter of the late billionaire shopping mall mogul Matthew Bucksbaum. She declined to quantify her net worth.
Planet Word isn’t the first to tackle language and reading in a museum format — there’s Mundolingua in Paris, as well as language museums in Toronto and the Netherlands, among others — and it’s not the first to use high-tech games and displays to engage visitors in its subject. But it’s the rare museum that combines both. It becomes the newest in a long list of attractions in this museum-rich city.
“It’s a challenge for any museum to establish a foothold in a place like Washington, where we have the Smithsonian and so many great museums,” said Marsha Semmel, a museum educator, author and Planet Word board member. “[Planet Word] doesn’t seem like the usual idea for a museum, but I do think there are a lot of compelling reasons for people to get interested in [it].”
Friedman said Washington was the only location considered because the nation’s capital is the only spot for addressing a topic of “national import.”
“Our country was founded on the written word, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights,” she said. “After you’ve visited all those word-engraved historic sites, you might like to visit a museum that shows you the broader context — not just the power of words, but the beauty and fun, too.”
Washington is the right setting for highlighting the connection between literacy and democracy, she added. “A strong democracy needs a literate population. We know readers are volunteers, they are active in their communities. They vote. So we need to find additional ways to engage people with words, with reading, with books.”
Although some may be surprised by the project, Friedman sees it as a logical extension of her life’s work. She has supported literacy organizations with her philanthropy, and she was inspired by David Rubenstein’s gifts to major Washington institutions.
“Museums can try anything; they’re not hemmed in by time or curriculum requirements. So, if joke-telling or speechmaking or rapping is the key to hooking someone on reading, they can give that a try,” she said. “That’s what I think a museum can do. I can do that as an individual — teach in my class with 16 students — but that doesn’t scale.”
Friedman’s project is different from the language museums that precede it. Mundolingua is a Paris museum that focuses on linguistics, while the American Writers Museum in Chicago celebrates books and reading by examining the influence of writers on American culture. There are many museums around the world dedicated to specific languages, and the National Museum of Language had a space in College Park from 2008 until 2014, when it closed for financial reasons.
“We cover every language, where [Friedman] is more into English,” said NML President Greg Nedved about his organization, which still presents programs and a summer camp but exists primarily online.
Planet Word has the benefit of a wealthy patron, something the NML lacked, Nedved said. Friedman has pledged to use her own money to fund the restoration of the Franklin School, a National Historic Landmark that opened in 1869 as one of the District’s first public schools. The renovation will cost more than $25 million.
That promise attracted city leaders. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and her economic development advisers selected Planet Word in 2017 as the winner of a competition to reinvent the building, which had been shuttered since 2008. Once home to the city’s board of education, the school is an ideal setting for a museum focused on learning and technology. It was where Alexander Graham Bell made the first successful wireless voice transmission in 1880.
“I’m happy this building is going to live again,” Friedman said. “It’s going to attract people, whether they are interested in words and language or not, because they haven’t been able to get inside for a decade.”
The restoration suffered a setback last year when city officials halted construction after discovering parts of the protected interiors had been removed. The issue caused the opening to be delayed.
Friedman apologized for the problem, which she described as a mistake that came from her lack of experience in real estate development. The solution was to create a plan and engage with city officials regularly, she said.
“We have a plan we all agreed to, and [city officials] go on walk-throughs monthly,” she said. “If we have questions, they come and help us make a decision.”
Friedman has served on nonprofit boards, including the SEED Foundation and the National Symphony Orchestra, but she has no hands-on museum experience.
In 2013, she started to research her project by attending museum conferences, meeting with leaders of institutions she admired and hiring a staff, including executive director Patty Isacson Sabee. She built a board that includes investment bankers, developers, lawyers, educators, writers and museum professionals — a group with expertise in all aspects of the project, Semmel said.
“I’ve been so impressed by Ann’s step-by-step, dogged, thoughtful process,” she said, adding that Friedman and the staff have reached out to local community groups, partnered with Apple at the Carnegie Library and participated in the National Book Festival.
In addition to the board of directors, Planet Word has an advisory board that includes Harvard professors Steven Pinker and Catherine Snow, New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz, musicians Ben Folds and Paul Simon, and authors Jason Reynolds and Deborah Fallows.
Some she called out of the blue to explain her idea and ask for their assistance.
“I told them, ‘You lend credibility to this project and to me,’ ” she said. “I needed their advice and their names.”
Friedman has raised $16 million of the $20 million required to create the exhibitions and support the first year of operations. Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Poetry Foundation and AT&T are among the project’s major donors. The museum hired Local Projects, a firm that worked on the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, to lead the design, and Lone Shark Games of Seattle and the Solomon Group of New Orleans are contributing to the games and exhibitions.
In focusing on immersive exhibitions and interactive displays, Planet Word is following the example of the National Museum of Mathematics in New York and the Exploratorium in San Francisco. This is the future, says Malcolm O’Hagan, a founding director of the American Writers Museum in Chicago.
“The focus is on the customer, on the visitor experience,” O’Hagan said. “Museums like the Smithsonian are hugely important in terms of preserving iconic artifacts. We’re taking a different way to engage people — particularly young people — so they are there doing something, not just looking at things.”