Word up! Planet Word museum reopens this week at DC’s Franklin Square

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Planet Word (Part 1)

How is your linguistic aptitude? Can you turn a phrase? Are you at a loss for words?

The Planet Word museum re-opens Thursday, after cutting the ribbon last October.

“When you have a vision like our founder Ann Friedman did, about presenting a cultural institution that would help renew and inspire a love of words, language and reading, you want it to happen whenever it can happen and you want it to be there for people when it’s ready to be there,” Executive Director Patty Isacson Sabee told WTOP.

She said the voice-activated museum is uniquely suited for social distancing, and will have 35 people an hour coming through the 15,000 square feet of space.

The museum is in the historic Franklin School, at 13th and K streets, in Northwest D.C. The closest Metro stops are McPherson Square and Metro Center. The building is 150 years old, Isacson Sabee said, and was made a historic landmark for the Adolf Cluss architecture with high ceilings for light and air circulation. “Also, in 1869 Alexander Graham Bell sent the first transmission via photophone (a device that transmitted voice over rays of light) over light from the rooftop of the Franklin School.”

The museum is funded by philanthropist Ann B. Friedman, the wife of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. She footed the $35 million renovation, while operating costs are funded by $20 million from donors, including AT&T, Bloomberg and Microsoft.

“Ann Friedman was a public school teacher and had a long-held vision that a literate population is the foundation of a strong democracy,” Isacson Sabee said. “Kids could be activated to become lifelong readers. … Her vision was to use current technologies and access to relevant celebrities [to] engage them beyond just opening a book.”

Before you enter the museum, you’ll encounter the “Speaking Willow,” a sculptural tree with metal branches with bell-shaped speakers at the end of each. “As you move underneath, your motion activates voices to come from the speaker in 365 different languages from around the world.”

Once inside, you can start your journey with the exhibit “First Words.”

“Speech is developed in stages,” Isacson Sabee said. “We all start with babbling. Even deaf babies will babble with their hands when they’re signing. This is a fun way for people to experience the development of the trajectory of how we learn to talk just by watching personal home videos that take you through the stages.”

Next, you’ll encounter the exhibit “Where Do Words Come From?,” which tells the story of the development of English. “It is a room that is occupied by a 48-foot-wide, 22-foot-high wall of over 1,000 three-dimensional talking words,” Isacson Sabee said. “The wall will speak to you and invite you to speak to it. As you speak to it, it will trigger various stories about how the English language has developed.”

From there, you’ll move onto the exhibit “The Spoken World,” a 12-foot globe. “It is filled with language ambassadors that engage you in conversation about what makes their particular language unique,” Isacson Sabee said. “You are encouraged to try out some of the phrases in these various languages that are everywhere from endangered to indigenous.”

And that’s just the first floor. What fun awaits on the second?

“We have a karaoke-type gallery called ‘Unlock the Music’ about the techniques that make songs great,” Isacson Sabee said. “There’s a joking around gallery with an exhibit called ‘Don’t Make Me Laugh.’ … There’s a magical library where you take books off a shelf, put them on a table and the books come alive in front of you.”

Tickets are free. Museum hours are Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can get tickets online on a rolling 30-day basis. You can also try dropping in, Isacson Sabee said. “We are keeping it to 35 [people] an hour, but we are trying to make it available to people who are passing by and want to try it.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Planet Word (Part 2)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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