- The Magazine
Nearly a decade ago, Ann Friedman read about a new museum of mathematics in New York that brought abstract concepts of arithmetic to life through technology.
“I thought if that could work for math, it would be even more important to do something like that to bring language and words to life,” says Friedman, a retired English teacher. “I felt like a literate population was the key to a strong democracy, and that our democracy depended upon creating leaders. With all the signs sort of going the wrong direction on literacy — test scores declining or stagnating, newspapers folding — the one approach that hadn’t been tried was a museum [to help] make education fun.”
After spending the better part of the past decade developing the concept, Friedman felt compelled to open the Planet Word Museum in 2020 — even during the ongoing global pandemic.
“I became even more assured that opening was the right thing to do now, if we could do it safely,” she says, “because our mission, about the importance of words and language, is so crucial, and language is at the forefront of the news — and that wasn’t something that I expected when I started working on this in 2013. But here we are in 2020 and there is a focus on the words that people use like never before. I felt we could at least open our doors and make a statement about the importance of words and language just by our very existence.”
Planet Word was finally able to do that last month in its refurbished home, downtown’s historic Franklin School. The enchanting physical location only bolstered Friedman’s contention that Planet Word should be experienced in person rather than online. “I wanted a physical place that people came to where they would use their words, together, and have a social, communal kind of experience,” says Friedman, noting the official tagline is “the museum where language comes to life.”
That notion is given quite literal meaning in the “magical” library gallery, where books selected by guests and placed into a special holder, “come to life — the words, the pictures. It’s quite amazing technology. Everybody wants to see, ‘Oh, what will this book do? What will that book do?’, because each experience of opening a book is different — a different artistic approach that’s been taken, different speakers telling about the book. And it’s all designed to make someone want to read a particular book.” Interactive exhibits throughout the museum, many of them voice-activated, allow guests to “explore and go deeper into related subjects like dialect or forensic linguistics or ‘Do animals have language?'”
Meanwhile, Friedman’s celebrity cousin-in-law Nate Berkus designed the museum’s gift shop, punningly named Present Perfect. “We sell word- and mission-related items, really cool gifts and cards and books [for] all of your holiday shopping.”
Eventually, when it’s safe for groups to gather, Planet Word will host regular programming ranging from lectures to seminars to “wordshops.” A new restaurant and kitchen, operated as Chef Enrigue Limardo’s fast-casual concept Immigrant Food, is also planned for next year, along with an immersive “word puzzle experience” called Lexicon Lane.
“In every exhibit in the museum, we’ve taken great pains to make sure that, whoever you are, you will see yourself represented in a book, a song, a poem, a speech at Planet Word,” Friedman says. “The diversity of the planet is represented here.”
One featured videotaped speaker in the museum’s final gallery, Words Matter, “talks about how important it was when they discovered that they could say ‘they/them’ and not ‘he’ or ‘she’,” reflecting the fact that language is adaptable, and also that Planet Word is a “descriptive language museum, not prescriptive.”
“There’s no exhibit about grammar and punctuation here, even though I’m a former copy editor, so I can nitpick with the best of ’em,” Friedman says. “But that’s not what Planet Word is about. We want to celebrate language as people really use it, and celebrate how flexible and alive it is. We don’t want our museum to be intimidating. We don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go there because I wasn’t good in English.’ That is definitely not the point here.”
Planet Word, located in the Franklin School at 925 13th St. NW., is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Tickets are free and available as timed-entry passes in advance or a limited number of walk-ups, all following COVID-19 safety guidelines. Call 202-931-3139 or visit www.planetwordmuseum.org.
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