Planet Word: Where Language Comes to Life
Text by K.Mitchell Snow
Photos Paul Clemence
My first response to hearing about a museum dedicated to language was to wonder what in the world it planned on exhibiting. Vitrines stuffed with dictionaries? Who would want to see that? Well, Plant Word’s answer to that question isn’t dictionaries. I’m not simply saying that I’ve never had so much fun in any museum ever. I could name an amusement park or three whose creative teams might profit from a few hours spent within these former classrooms.
This new museum may fit comfortably inside a carefully renovated nineteenth century school, just a few blocks from the White House. But any suggestion of the old-fashioned educational methodologies once suffered by the children of Washington, DC’s elite vanishes before you even enter its doors. The entry plaza is dominated by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Speaking Willow Tree, formed out of dozens of speakers conveying the sounds of many languages. The sonic effect evokes a convocation of multiple species of birds that have somehow flocked together to one tiny ecosystem to twitter about their peregrinations.
There’s not a hint of the grim days of yore when “readin’ and ‘ritin’” were “taught to the tune of a hickory stick.” Indeed, should the spirits of any of the schoolmarms who first stood before its blackboards in 1869 still be hovering about the place, they must be stunned into complete silence by the array of technological wonders at the ready to engage even the most reluctant museumgoer. Planet Word doesn’t need to assure its visitors that they’re going to enjoy themselves, one glance at the people gathered in rapt attention around any of its interactive exhibits takes care of that.
The least technologically sophisticated of Planet Word’s exhibition simply and effectively illustrates the complex nature of language and how deeply ingrained it is in the human animal. Through a quick video montage beginning with a pair of babies babbling happily at each other before a refrigerator, moving to the first words — with helpful subtitles to ensure the listener can distinguish between what is meant to be “apple” and a very similar sounding “mama” — and culminating in the ability to form complete sentences — “But why Daddy, WHY?” — we see the way words take command of our responses to the world around us.
From here on out its a whirlwind of interactivity: A wall of sculpted words responds to your answers about the most used words in the English language or leads you to the source of its endless adaptability.
(Spoiler alert, the geniuses behind this were probably teenaged girls during the Middle Ages). A gigantic globe surrounded by touch pads not only provides tutorials on such fascinating subjects as languages where click sounds play vital roles, its geography morphs along with its lessons. Africa transforms into a giant butterfly as we learn that the beautiful insect symbolizes a warrior’s valor in Zulu.
The museum’s library room is everything any reader would wish it to be. It incorporates a bookcase providing access to a “secret” room where you can settle down to an engaging poetry reading.
Or select any book from its ample shelves, open its pages on the oversized library table and a short, filmed overview of its content will erupt from its pages, encouraging you to keep reading.
There’s an entire room dedicated to dissecting the language of humor in the most amusing ways possible, including acting out figures of speech with the help of props incorporating outsized visual puns. Or hang out in its karaoke bar, with a wide range of musical selections available — my great-nice was comforted to know that she could select songs from Frozen. As the lyrics scroll along the screen, the text also calls out and defines the elements songwriters use to make their words sing — repetition, internal rhyme, rhythm they’re all here. You can wander off to other floors and explore the language of persuasion (this is Washington after all), or regional accents (with six pronunciation questions, one interactive correctly identified where I was born). It’s all endlessly entertaining and painlessly educational.
The signage located throughout the museum assures its visitors that there are more innovative interactive to come in the future. Word is that there’s even a beta exhibit space that allows visitors to face off against each other in a riddled battle of vocabulary. Count me in for a return visit.
K. Mitchell Snow is the author of A Revolution in Movement: Dancers, Painters, and the Image of Modern Mexico (University Press of Florida 2020). He has written about Latin American art and culture for publications such as Américas, Art Nexus, History of Photography and Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas.
Paul Clemence is an award-winning photographer and writer exploring the cross-section of design, art and architecture. A published author, his volume Mies van der Rohe’s FARNSWORTH HOUSE remains to this day the most complete photo documentation of that iconic modern residential design, and a selection of these photos is part of the Mies van der Rohe Archives housed by MoMa, New York. He is widely published in arts, architecture and lifestyle magazines like Metropolis, ArchDaily, Architizer, Modern, Casa Vogue Brasil and others. Archi-Photo, aka Architecture Photography, his Facebook photo blog quickly became a photography and architecture community, with over 970,000 followers worldwide. An architect by training, Clemence is originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and now lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.