Every room in Planet Word, which opens October 22, celebrates heeding that other urge — a desire to communicate that turns baby babbles into complex languages that let you deliver punchlines and powerful speeches. Expect it to be kind of noisy, promises founder Ann Friedman. “You can talk to exhibits,” she explains. “You have to use your voice and get involved.”
For an interactive light show about the development of English, you’ll find microphones in front of a 20-foot-tall wall covered in 1,000 words. A voice asks questions and flashes responses on the wall based on the words people call out — shout “hazard” to learn how it came from the Arabic for “dice.” (Hint: Playing a game of dice can be risky.)
You can get pointers on pronunciation by chatting via iPad with videos of cheerful language ambassadors, who coach you through rolling your Rs in Spanish or making the three kinds of clicks in isiZulu, spoken in South Africa. There are more than two dozen lessons to choose from, including one on how deaf people communicate differently in every country. (That’s right, American Sign Language isn’t the same as British Sign Language.) Friedman thinks kids will particularly like talking to Noa, a 12-year-old girl from Israel, who explains the origins of the Hebrew word for “ice cream.”
Young people play an important role throughout Planet Word. The “Lend Me Your Ears” exhibit, which invites visitors to sit in front of a teleprompter and practice public speaking, features the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech by Malala Yousafzai, who was just 17 at the time. The 2019 D.C. youth poet laureate, Gabriela Orozco, is the subject of one of the videos in “Words Matter,” an exhibit about how language can change your life and shape your identity. (Visitors can chime in by writing and recording their own messages.)
“Who experiments with words? It’s kids,” says Friedman, a former reading teacher, who appreciates that children and teens tend to create vocabulary.
Make-believe and magic swirl around the museum’s “Harry Potter”-ish library, where you can place any book on a special desk and an animated film about it appears. Speak to mirrors on the wall, and they reveal miniature 3-D interpretations of scenes from “The Phantom Tollbooth” and other beloved novels. And look for the bookshelf that’s actually the door to a secret poetry nook.
There’s more wonder to behold in “Word Worlds,” where you can digitally “paint” over a panoramic image of a nature scene and cityscape. Instead of colors, you dip your brush into adjectives, or words used to describe things. So, “nocturnal” turns the sky dark and transforms a bird into an owl, while “hibernal” blankets everything in snow.
“Wouldn’t it be cool to go to school here?” Friedman asks. Planet Word’s red brick building — designed by famous architect Adolf Cluss — was originally a public school for boys and girls when it opened 151 years ago. Just a few years later, telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell tested another idea from the roof: the photophone, which used light beams to send sound. What was his message? Words, of course.
IF YOU GO
What: Planet Word
Where: 925 13th Street in Northwest Washington (McPherson Square Metro)
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday through Saturday.
How much: General admission is free, with a suggested donation of $15. Because of coronavirus, admission is limited to 25 visitors per hour. Advance passes are recommended, although a limited number will be available for walk-ups.
Safety guidelines: All visitors ages 2 and older must wear a face covering consistent with public health guidance. Children must stay with adults at all times. Groups should remain together and practice social distancing with other museum visitors. Free stylus pens are available to use with the interactive devices.
For more information: Call 202-931-3139 or visit planetwordmuseum.org.