Words, words, glorious words!
Music. TV and movies. Social media. Talking with friends. Words are all around us every day, in one form or another. But we don’t really ever stop and think about the origin of the words and language we use, do we?
The newly opened Planet Word museum aims to change that.
The interactive museum fills three floors of the historic Franklin School with games, touch screens and video screens to help visitors explore the origins and evolution of languages, and to play with words by reading, singing and speaking.
In this museum-saturated city, Planet Word delivers something new.
Word play begins even before entering the museum. There’s an exhibit called the "Speaking Willow" in the courtyard when you arrive. 500 suspended speakers hang from each branch hat are activated as you pass by, playing hundreds of languages from around the world. At first, it sounds like soft whispers but stopping under one of the speakers brings the sound into focus. As you walk in, be sure to look down. The lobby floor is embedded with symbols from throughout human history.
Inside, your experience starts on the third floor, where you’ll make your way down through 10 galleries, each organized around a different history or use of language. The first gallery has a 22-foot wall of carved words of various sizes. A projection brings the wall to life, highlighting certain words and using animation and narration to give quick tidbits about where our words come from.
It’s fascinating how so many of our modern words have evolved from far-flung parts of the world, so many years ago. The narrator occasionally encourages you to shout out answers into a row of microphones, that triggers a response, kind of like Google Voice or Alexa.
You can also learn about languages and words spoken around the world. The next room features a giant globe suspended in the middle of the room, surrounded by interactive touchscreens on small stands. Each screen displays a welcoming face that engages you in conversation about a different language and whose stories are illustrated on the globe. The images also challenge you to try to say a word or tongue-twister in that language. It’s a lot of fun!
Downstairs is a book-lovers dream library; a wood-paneled “Magical Library” filled floor-to-ceiling with books of all types, from children’s classics to modern titles. Famous quotes are painted on walls and columns, and as you browse, interactive dioramas built into bookshelves spring to life, offering recreations of well-known passages. A long illuminated table in the center of the room features special platforms that make works from Ta-Nehisi Coates, Madeleine L’Engle, Jason Reynolds, and other texts interactive. Choose a book, place it on the platform and a projection plays an animation over the pages while a speaker plays a short narration or a commentary on the text.
The next room,“Word Worlds,” invites you to “paint” a digital mural, selecting one of a dozen qualities such as tempestuous, nostalgic and surreal. (When you dip the brush into the “tempestuous” bucket and sweep it over the landscape, rain and wind appear; nostalgic adds a sepia tone and a swipe of “surreal” distorts the images a la Edvard Munch.)
Planet Word also explores the impact of words in music in a karaoke lounge downstairs that offers songs by Drake, Dolly Parton, Outkast and others, with each performance preceded by a short lesson on the artist’s wordplay. There’s even a whole room dedicated to exploring the language tricks used in advertising.
The last gallery on the main floor ends your visit on a more serious note. The “Words Matter” gallery has lengthy videos of people telling personal stories, including one about the power of personal pronouns, and another about code-switching. Different stations prompt you to share your impressions, like your favorite word, and a recording booth invites you to share your own tales.
So,who should visit Planet Word? There is an earnest quality to this, kind of like an adult school trip vibe, but that's part of its appeal. Planet Word encourages curiosity and engagement, so if regular museums have you wishing for more, it definitely delivers. But founder Ann Friedman has an even better answer to this question: “People are going to have so much fun and be amazed by the technology and the ways we have been able to bring language to life,” Friedman told the Washington Post. “Our country was founded on the written word, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. After you’ve visited all those word-engraved historic sites, you might like to visit a museum that shows you the broader context — not just the power of words, but the beauty and fun, too.”
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