In 1880, Alexander Graham Bell performed the first wireless voice transmission from the roof of downtown DC’s Franklin School—making this historic building an apt location for Planet Word, a new museum that utilizes technology to inspire a love of language. “There’s never been a museum showcasing the fun and power and beauty of words and language,” notes founder and CEO Ann Friedman, a philanthropist and former reading instructor who is married to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. “Words are the overlooked and under-appreciated artifacts of our lives. Planet Word will change all that.” The project was funded in part by AT&T, which evolved out of Bell’s long-ago invention.
Conceived in Renaissance Revival style by Adolf Cluss in 1869, the five-story, 50,000-square-foot structure is designated a National Historic Landmark. To make way for the museum, architects at Beyer Blinder Belle restored the building, preserving two grand staircases, some classrooms and the original frescoes that adorned the walls. They also renovated the fourth floor to create event space. Interiors were repurposed by Local Projects, an exhibit-design firm, to establish 10 immersive, voice-activated learning galleries that ingeniously employ technology. A 22-foot-tall talking word wall shares the story of language; a karaoke lounge teaches songwriting; and teleprompters in an acoustically sealed room help budding orators deliver historic speeches. In the courtyard entrance, a “Speaking Willow Tree,” sculpted in metal by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, plays hundreds of languages on 364 speakers hung from its branches and delivered via 3.6 miles of ethernet cable.
While Planet Word opened briefly in October 2020, its doors have since closed due to the pandemic. For updates on reopening plans, visit planetwordmuseum.org. Photos and renderings courtesy of Planet Word.