All words by Elsie Yang
It is difficult to find the words to describe 2020. But you’ll have a better chance of discovering exactly how best to put a name to these last several months at Planet Word, a new museum dedicated to language, than you will anywhere else — at least in Washington, D.C.
The newest museum to join an impressive array of educational institutions in the nation’s capitol, Planet Word is an homage to one of the core tenets of humanity — communication. Located inside the historic former Franklin School at 13th and K, the museum maintains the legacy of its building by providing visitors with a unique educational experience that is distinctively interactive.
Comprised of 3 floors and 10 immersive learning galleries, Planet Word reimagines the staid and stoic traditional museum experience by encouraging significant activity both between the visitor and each exhibit, and among visitors themselves. You’ll start your visit on the third floor, which you should reach by a library-themed elevator, decorated with the covers of famous books from around the world and across eras. The first exhibit is a delightful look at how we acquire language, exploring the development of language from birth to your first word. And while there’s not much for you to do in this exhibit save for stand and listen, the rest of the museum becomes fully interactive.
A personal favorite is the 22-foot-tall talking wall named “Where Do Words Come From,” which encourages visitors to talk into microphones as they explore the etymology of words like hazard, selfie, and pork. You’ll learn that teenage girls most frequently create new words, and that 90% of the English language comes from Greek, Latin, French, and German.
And if you want to learn how to speak French or German, or languages that are further removed from English like Zulu, Irish Gaelic, Chinese, or Hawaiin, you can do so in yet another gallery that introduces visitors to the languages of the world. A series of iPads encircle a large globe, and native speakers from various countries guide you through their tongues, waiting for you to repeat words like “earring” or “toad” in a mini language lesson.
Learning these languages, of course, is more than just a vanity project. As Planet Word points out, some 40% of languages are endangered, with just a handful of native speakers left to carry on the tradition of their ancestors’ communication.
While there’s plenty to be concerned about when it comes to language, there’s more than enough to celebrate as well. And celebration is something Planet Word does particularly well. You can take part in karaoke while learning how songwriters leverage certain linguistic techniques to create hit tunes, or give your own rendition of famous speeches from icons including Mufasa from Lion King and President Barack Obama from the United States.
If you’re more of a visual learner, you can take a smart paintbrush and “dip” it into words like autumnal or nostalgic, and paint over a canvas to see how these words are defined. Also not to be missed is a photobooth that encourages visitors to act out words like impish or coy — once you’re ready for your close-up, the photobooth snaps a photo that you can take with you as a souvenir of your time in the museum.
Given the number of galleries (and number of words) in Planet Word, you could easily spend an entire day expanding your mind and your vocabulary at the museum. And you’d certainly do so in comfort. One of the centerpieces of the museum is a library that looks as though it belongs in Beauty and the Beast; it’s filled with some of the most famous titles in literature, and with plenty of comfortable seating, visitors can take the time to catch up on some light reading. Of course, given the pandemic, visit times and visitor numbers are limited, but if ever there comes a time that we’re allowed to truly spend an entire day in a museum, this should certainly be at the top of your list.
Until then, however, Planet Word is doing all it can to ensure that the museum is not only an enjoyable and educational experience, but a safe one as well. The interactive displays are all touchscreen, which is why the museum provides visitors with a stylus that they can use instead of their fingers. Masks must be kept on at all times, and social distancing measures are strictly enforced.
Even for the most learned, literary visitors, there’s plenty about language—both its creation and its manipulation—to be discovered at Planet Word. And in a time in our history when words like “post-truth” and “fake news” are gaining ground, having a foundational understanding of language and its incredible capabilities feels more germane than ever.
Planet Word is open Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and admission is free.