D.C.’s Newest Museum is Perfect for Kids ... And It’s Free
Many museums have tried to make high-tech a part of their experience and many have failed. D.C.'s newest attraction, however, is a fun success.
One of COVID’s biggest hardships is the balancing act it has inflicted on the nation’s parents forced to juggle working from home with teaching and entertaining their children.
Now, a new free museum in Washington, D.C., that just opened this week is here to help.
The latest entry in the capital city’s long list of museum options, Planet Word, is genuinely one of the most delightful experiences I’ve had in recent memory, even though it is definitely designed more with children in mind. It was founded by Ann B. Friedman, a former teacher, and is housed in the beautiful former Franklin School on K Street (just down the block from The Washington Post).
Planet Word’s focus, as you might guess from its name, is language. It bills itself as the “world’s first voice-activated museum and the country’s only museum dedicated to words and language.” Through a variety of AR, audio, and VR experiences, the museum walks visitors through the creation of languages and how they are utilized—in everything from songwriting to comedy to speeches.
One enters the wonderfully restored Victorian school (light-filled is an understatement) via a courtyard with Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s aluminum tree sculpture featuring LED lights and speakers able to fire away in 364 different languages. The space inside feels similar to the update done to the Renwick Gallery by the White House. The preferred route begins on the third floor, to the spectacular Wall of Words.
It’s an interactive voice-activated auditory and light show walking visitors through how the English language was formed. You’ll learn not only about the mix of Germanic, Viking, French, Latin, and Arabic that make up our daily life, but also the other ways words were created, like onomatopoeia and portmanteaus. My favorite tidbit? That teenage girls over the past few centuries have been the greatest innovators in the English language (including getting rid of doth, hath, and ye).
The following great hall-type room takes visitors to languages around the world. In front of a variety of screens you can learn more than 30 languages (including two sign languages). I chose Zulu, which I utterly failed at.
The second floor will likely be the most fun for families, as the activities ramp up. First, it’s songwriting via some karaoke. Then a room on comedy and one on how words can shape how we see things (using a landscape painting board that brought me back to high school and SmartBoards).
The show-stopper room is undoubtedly the library.
A long hall amplified by ceiling mirrors, the library is an entry into the written word. A variety of books can be taken off the displays and placed into trays that then start audio/visual shows taking you deeper into the story behind it. (I chose The Lorax.) Around the sides of the room are what look like empty picture frames, but are in fact elaborate dioramas that depict a scene from a passage in a famous book.
Then comes a space on speeches, the highlight being a studio where you can record your own version of a famous speech and see how well (or not) you do with a teleprompter. The floor rounds out with a photo-booth where you act out various SAT words, and then it’s on down to the main floor. One small tip: Even if you don’t have to use the bathroom, you should still check them out. I giggled, and you’ll see why.
The final room is called Words Matter. It’s probably the heaviest of the rooms, with individuals sharing stories about why certain words have such deep meanings for them. It features everybody from celebrities to non-household names.
Best of all, the museum will be free, both during COVID and for the future. For now, tickets will be limited to 25 an hour (and can be booked through the website).
“Democracy depends on literate citizens,” declared Friedman (wife of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman) in a statement for opening day. “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.”
Whether such lofty goals are met remains to be seen, but your kids (and you) will have fun regardless.