The dream of philanthropist and former teacher Ann Friedman, Planet Word opens almost five months late and in a limited capacity because of the ongoing pandemic. Only a few hundred guests will be admitted over three days (Thursday-Saturday) each week, and they will need a timed-entry pass to enter. Officials will direct visitor movement to maintain social distance. Some of the interactive games are voice-activated, and the museum will distribute styluses for use with its many touch screens.
Passes will be released on Mondays for the following week. Museum officials plan to adjust their hours and capacity as conditions improve.
During a recent tour, Friedman expressed disappointment over the limited reopening but said she rejected the idea of waiting out the restrictions.
“A museum of words and language is needed more now than when I started in 2013,” said Friedman, referring to today’s political climate and the presidential election. Literacy, she said, is at the heart of democracy: “Planet Word lives at the center of the discussion. I didn’t want to miss this moment.”
The daily stresses brought on by the pandemic also motivated her to open. “People need some joy in their lives, to have a break, to see something new,” she said.
In this museum-saturated city, Planet Word delivers something new. With a decidedly middle-school-students-on-spring-break vibe (most obvious in its bathroom humor), it is a descendant of science centers rather than the Smithsonian facilities that line the Mall. In its 10 galleries are exhibits spotlighting the word play that fuels jokes; the techniques found in popular song lyrics; and the tricks used in advertising. In each setting, visitors learn by playing along.
The Great Hall features a 12-foot computerized globe that lights up when you interact with one of the many tablets arranged around it. The tablets display videos of people who speak dozens of languages and whose stories are illustrated on the globe.
The “Magical Library” gallery is filled with books that come alive with video montages. “Word Worlds” invites you to “paint” a digital mural, selecting one of a dozen qualities such as tempestuous, nostalgic and surreal. (When you dip the brush into the “tempestuous” bucket and sweep it over the landscape, rain and wind appear; nostalgic adds a sepia tone and a swipe of “surreal” distorts the images a la Edvard Munch.)
You learn about public speaking in “Lend Me Your Ears,” a gallery with annotated video clips ranging from “The Lion King” to Barack Obama’s keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. After watching the speeches, you can test your skills in a recording booth. The karaoke lounge invites you to sing songs chosen for their various songwriting attributes. On a more serious note, the “Words Matter” gallery presents lengthy videos of people telling personal stories, including one about the power of personal pronouns, and another about code-switching. A recording booth invites you to share your own tales.
Friedman began working on this project in 2013, and four years later her proposal was selected by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser for the vacant Franklin School, a National Historic Landmark that opened in 1869. One of the District’s first public schools, the building has housed the city’s Board of Education and a homeless shelter. It was the site of Alexander Graham Bell’s first successful wireless voice transmission in 1880.
The daughter of the late billionaire shopping mall mogul Matthew Bucksbaum, Friedman spent $35 million of her own fortune on the gorgeous restoration of the building. She raised another $25 million from donors for the museum’s exhibitions and start-up costs.
Planet Word has an auditorium, two classrooms and two fourth-floor event spaces that will be ready for use when District officials pull back virus-related restrictions.
Despite the delay, Planet Word is still a work in progress. A word-puzzle exhibit will open in a few months, and a restaurant is expected to debut in the spring. Immigrant Food, Chef Enrique Limardo’s restaurant near the White House, will open a satellite with the same focus on creative dishes inspired by immigrant stories, Friedman said, making it the perfect partner.
“All the cultures we are bringing in through language, they are bringing in through food,” she said.
If you go
924 13th St. NW. planetwordmuseum.org.
Dates: Open Thursdays-Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. by timed-entry pass.
Admission: Free (donation suggested).