“One of the hardest things in life is having words in your heart that you can’t utter.” — James Earl Jones

“Our words should be purrs instead of hisses.” — Kathrine Palmer Peterson

While a picture may be worth a thousand words, it could be equally argued that those who master the art of employing words to their maximum potential — like “wordsmiths” or “griots” — might also be considered artists although they paint their pictures with words.

And in today’s era which has featured the unprecedented on numerous fronts, the sudden rise in claims of “fake news” or “alternative truths” which have defined the presidency of Donald Trump and those who support his other assertions, the significance of language and how it shapes society and our beliefs through words and the images they provide has become a topic which dominates the discussions of Americans from “sea to shining sea.”

But do not lament if you feel like you need an update or primer on the latest configurations of effective language. Fortunately, a revolutionary museum has recently opened its doors here in D.C. which sheds light on this paradigm shift within U.S. society — one dedicated to the power, beauty and fun of language while illustrating how words shape the human experience.

Housed in the Franklin School, a National Historic Landmark building located in Northwest which upon its opening in 1869 served as the District’s first co-ed (and segregated) public school and would later become the venue where Alexander Graham Bell, in 1880, successfully transmitted the world’s first wireless voice transmission, Planet Word has immediately changed the terrain for museums of today and tomorrow. Employing high-tech ingenuity as a means of facilitating language comprehension while also bolstering literacy, it counts as the world’s first voice-activated museum featuring immersive galleries and exhibits that will engage visitors of all ages.

Planet Word founder and CEO Ann Friedman (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)
Planet Word founder and CEO Ann Friedman (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)

Best of all, the cost of admission remains within anyone’s reach: the willingness to devote an hour or two of their time. However, due to restrictions including limits on the number of people who can safely gather in public spaces because of the coronavirus health pandemic, Planet Word opened its doors in a mostly virtual ceremony on Oct. 22 — five months later than originally planned.

But for the museum’s founder and CEO, Ann Friedman, with “so many other voices able to weigh in during the opening from other locations and with so many more viewers able to watch the ceremony because of it being virtual, it may have worked out even better.”

She said the delayed opening has proven to be fortuitous for other reasons as well.

“I cannot imagine a more fitting time for a museum of language to open in our nation’s capital — a nation in which democracy depends on literate citizens,” Friedman said. “I hope that Planet Word can provide a forum for civil discourse and a place where our community, in all its vibrant diversity, can gather to share the words that bridge differences and forge solutions.”

Friedman, a former educator specializing in language arts skills — reading, writing and speaking — for early primary grades, pursued education as a career later in life while in her 40s after witnessing the transformative effect that her daughter’s second-grade teacher had on her child’s development. She approved every word employed in the exhibits and had a hand in the planning of each of the galleries as well — some even inspired by her own successful classroom experiences.

She asserted that a facility like Planet Word can teach those willing to learn a great deal about words.

“Words matter and have the power to hurt or heal,” she said. “As we engage with those who may sound different from us when speaking English because of their origins, we develop a greater sense of empathy for others. Today’s youth continue to illustrate that one’s economic status has little influence on their ability to effectively manipulate language.”

“We have already partnered with a D.C.-based after-school program, DC SCORES, which helps youth who are also members of their neighborhood teams build confidence both on the playing field and in the classroom and they’re creating amazing literary projects — poetry, speeches and spoken word presentations.”

“Here at Planet Word, we’re committed to supporting an environment for language learning based on interactive, hands-on experience. We don’t attempt to explain or clarify concepts like fake news, hate speech, advertising propaganda or any other components of language. We leave that for our visitors to learn on their own — hopefully as they make their way through the various galleries and exhibits. We simply give students the tools they need to understand for themselves,” Friedman said.

The museum features 10 immersive learning galleries that use technology in imaginative, ingenious ways to reimagine the modern museum experience. Among the museum’s voice-activated exhibits is “Where Do Words Come From?”, a 22-foot-tall talking word wall that shares the story of the English language through a conversation with visitors and extraordinary light effects. Other highlights include: an acoustically-sealed room where visitors use a teleprompter to deliver one of eight historically significant speeches; a karaoke lounge where music lovers will learn secrets of great songwriting; and a secret poetry nook hidden in the stacks of a magical library. In other galleries, visitors can create an advertising campaign, literally paint with words using “smart” paintbrushes and converse with native speakers of widely spoken and endangered languages. There’s also a gift shop with a cause-casual eatery planned to open in the spring.

For the immediate future, the museum will be open three days a week, Thursdays — Saturdays, with social distancing employed and crowds limited to 35 people per hour, personal protective equipment required for all patrons and hand sanitizer available throughout the facility. Staff members disinfectant touch screens, stylists and other common equipment and spaces throughout each day.

To register for tickets and review visitor guidelines, go to PlanetWordMuseum.org/Plan-Your-Visit.

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D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Dominic Kevin McNeir is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of service for the Black Press (NNPA). Prior to moving East to assist his aging parents in their struggles with Alzheimer’s,...

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