OOne of COVID’s biggest challenges is the balance it has inflicted on parents across the country forced to juggle working from home and teaching and entertaining their children.
Now a new free museum in Washington, DC that just opened this week is here to help.
The latest entry in the capital’s long list of museum options, Planet Word, is truly one of the most delightful experiences I’ve had in recent memory, even though it’s definitely designed for kids. It was founded by Ann B. Friedman, a former teacher, and is located in the beautiful Old Franklin School on K Street (just down the block from The Washington Post).
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The focus of Planet Word, as you can guess from the 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 guides visitors through the creation of languages and the way they are used – in everything from songwriting to comedy to speeches. .
You enter the beautifully restored Victorian School (light is to put it mildly) through a courtyard with Rafael Lozana-Hemmer’s aluminum sculpture with LED lights and speakers capable of sounding 364 different languages. The space inside looks like the White House update to the Renwick Gallery. The preferred route starts on the third floor, up to the spectacular Wall of Words.
It is a voice activated interactive auditory and light show that guides visitors through the training of the English language. You will not only learn about the mixture of Germanic, Viking, French, Latin and Arabic that make up our daily life, but also the other ways in which words were created, such as onomatopoeia and coat racks. My favorite treat? That teenage girls over the past few centuries have been the greatest innovators of the English language (including getting rid of doth, hath and ye).
The next large hall-type room takes visitors in languages from around the world. In front of a variety of screens, you can learn over 30 languages (including two sign languages). I chose Zulu, which I completely failed.
The second floor will likely be the most fun for families as the activities intensify. First of all, it’s writing songs through karaoke. Then a room on comedy and a room on how words can shape the way we see things (using a landscape painting board that took me back to high school and SmartBoards).
The auditorium is undoubtedly the library.
Long room amplified by mirrors on the ceiling, the library is an entry into the written word. A variety of books can be removed from the displays and placed in trays which then launch audio / visual shows that take you deeper into the story behind. (I have chosen The Lorax.) Along the sides of the coin are what look like empty frames, but there are actually elaborate dioramas that depict a scene from a passage from a famous book.
Next is 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’re doing a teleprompter. The floor ends with a photo booth where you play various SAT words, then it’s on the ground floor. A quick tip: Even if you don’t have to use the bathroom, you should still check them out. I laughed, and you will understand why.
The last room is called Words Matter. It’s arguably the heaviest of rooms, with individuals sharing stories of why certain words mean so deep to them. It features everyone from celebrities to unfamiliar names.
Best of all, the museum will be free, both during COVID and for the future. For now, tickets will be limited to 25 per hour (and can be booked through the website).
“Democracy depends on literate citizens,” said Friedman (wife of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman) in an opening day statement. “I hope Planet Word can provide a forum for civil discourse and a place where our community, in all its vibrant diversity, can come together to share the words that bridge differences and forge solutions.”
Whether these lofty goals will be met remains to be seen, but your kids (and you) will have fun regardless.
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