Have you ever wondered what language elves speak or how computers learn to tell jokes? Or what about how forensic linguistics are used to solve crimes or the importance of media literacy in today’s political and social climate?
Whether the topic is light and playful or more serious in nature, the District’s brand-new language arts museum is filled to the brim with immersive experiences focused on the power of words. The world’s first voice-activated museum, Planet Word, opened to the public on October 22 following a virtual ribbon-cutting event that featured prerecorded performances and experiences bringing the museum to life.
Located downtown inside D.C.’s historic Franklin School, the museum will only be open on Thursday through Saturday at first as Planet Word’s leadership gauges how comfortable their staff and visitors are. The museum’s executive director, Patty Isacson Sabee, says the two most important factors she and her team have put in place during Covid are controlling the amount of time the space is open and the number of people inside at any given time through timed tickets and advanced registration.
From making styluses available for touching screens to installing extra audio jacks so visitors can bring their own headphones from home, her team has been meticulous in planning ways to create safe experiences within the museum’s many interactive exhibits.
This impressive level of detail comes as no surprise, as founder and CEO Ann Friedman has been working to make her vision for the museum come to fruition since 2013, with Isacson Sabee joining in 2017. The nation’s capital was always meant to be the museum’s home, even in the early planning stages.
“D.C. was the goal because it is a city not only of museums and monuments, but that celebrates the great words that built our democracy and our country,” Isacson Sabee says. “It is a city of museums about things we value, and a seat of those powerful words that got us started is absolutely the right place for this museum to be.”
The executive director says she and Friedman were always in complete alignment about the importance of creating tangible experiences for the public to understand and appreciate the power, beauty and fun of words and language.
“[We shared] the desire to make reading cool again, and to connect people with the agency and power to enjoy and be thoughtful with their words and their language,” Isacson Sabee says, “and everything that comes with that: empathy for others, and the ability to create joyful experiences, have civil dialogue and support a democratic society.”
Planet Word has 10 galleries featuring immersive experiences, as well as digital interactives called beacons that give visitors the chance to delve deeper into a particular topic like media literacy or hate speech. The museum’s DIVERCITIES program hosts moderated conversations with artists, journalists, poets, activists and more on a monthly basis, connecting locals with peers in a range of cities from Milwaukee to Mexico City.
Isacson Sabee says it’s completely up to each visitor how much they want to engage and interact with individual exhibits.
“Every one of the galleries features a social, emotionally driven experience with words and language,” she says. “There is a lot to explore in a fun, engaging manner. When you want to understand what makes a song great, you can come to the [karaoke] exhibit and explore end rhyme and slant rhyme, but all while singing your favorite songs. It’s about how we create humor with wordplay while you’re telling jokes, [or] understanding the fun and pleasure of idioms and puns while you’re looking at someone with a prop and trying to guess, ‘Now, you’re holding a dagger and you’re plunging it into a bowl of what looks like Fruit Loops – are you a serial killer?’”
The museum is also curating hands-on experiences and partnerships with local talent, kickstarted by performances at their virtual opening from opera singer Renée Fleming, hip-hop artist Christylez Bacon and spoken word artist Charity Blackwell, among others.
When the museum asked Blackwell, who works as the director of creative arts and education for nonprofit DC SCORES, to write a poem about the power of words for the opening, she jumped at the opportunity.
“Of course, I was like, ‘Yes!’ I live, eat and breathe the power of words as a professional spoken word artist – seeing how the power of words impacts the people I perform for and how powerful words are in providing me with healing, as well as the kids I work with [at DC SCORES] seeing the power of words. That has given them a safe, healthy and supportive outlet to express their emotions in a very meaningful way.”
Blackwell says she’s looking forward to collaborating with Planet Word again in the near future and is hopeful the museum will showcase some of her students’ poetry in different activations. She views the space as the perfect outlet for her budding spoken word poets to learn about different types of writing.
“I’m looking forward to giving [my students] writing prompts, and also seeing other people who look like them to be inspired by and draw different types of inspiration from in their writing.”
While the museum is certainly advantageous for developing minds, Blackwell views its content as relevant to all ages – especially during such a divisive time for our country.
“We are in sensitive times so what you say, how you say it, what you agree to and where you stand is extremely important. Everyone is writing, posting and expressing themselves. We have to be extremely conscientious of the energy we’re putting out there with our words [and] understand the power of what we say. Whether that’s a tweet you put up, something you repost, something you say to your friends – it should matter, and it definitely matters a lot during this time.”
Isacson Sabee mirrors this sentiment, citing millennials as intense word nerds interested in things like “linguistic bias, which is one of the few really unaddressed biases we still have facing us in our country, and media literacy, which is so important now with the [upcoming] election.”
She adds, “There’s such a hunger for people to connect with this aspect of the humanities. It’s an exciting time to really be thinking about ways to communicate more nationally, and globally.”
Planet Word is open Thursday through Saturday and free to the public. Visitors are required to register in advance for timed tickets. Masks are mandatory and social distancing measures will be in place. For more information and safety guidelines, visit www.planetwordmuseum.org and follow @planetworddc on all social media platforms. Learn about Blackwell at www.charityblackwell.com and @charityjoyceblackwell on Instagram, and check out DC SCORES at www.dcscores.org.
925 13th St. NW, DC; 202-931-3139; www.planetwordmuseum.org
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