Planet Word is a new museum dedicated to words and language, housed inside the landmark Franklin School in downtown Washington DC. As the world’s first voice-activated museum, it is the most ambitiously interactive museum for the humanities.
Planet Word founder Ann Friedman ruminated on the shape of the museum for five years before selecting Local Projects as design partner, but one aspect of her vision was clear from the beginning—innovative, meaningful interaction would be the most important design consideration.
For visitors to grasp the world-shaping truths about the power of spoken, written, and signed language, every concept had to be presented as an active, personal experience. People needed to connect emotionally, not just intellectually.
Local Projects designed Planet Word’s ten immersive galleries, each with a participatory experience at the center. The activities were designed primarily for school children aged 10-12, but we took a universal design approach, resulting in experiences that are intuitive and compelling to visitors of all ages and the differently-abled. Some of the most popular galleries include:
- In the introductory gallery Where Do Words Come From?, a massive wall composed of over 1,000 three-dimensional words comes to life by speaking aloud, asking visitors questions, and responding with a lively combination of sound, animation, and detailed projection mapping. This wall uses its voice to address stereotypes and misconceptions about how language works — for example, the idea that “ain’t ain’t a word” and presenting evidence for language as a living thing that is shaped by us all.
- The Library is a magical place where the wonders of imagination and literature collide. Visitors pull an RFID-tagged book from a shelf, place it on the surface before them and watch as the characters, settings, and important moments come to life in front of their eyes. As birds fly, basketballs bounce, and Alice falls down the rabbit hole, visitors hear cinematic narration that explains what makes each book special, as well as original audio of authors describing why they wrote these beloved works of literature.
- In the Word Worlds gallery, visitors use a smart paint brush to “paint” with descriptive words like “hibernal” and “crepuscular.” As they move their brush along the wall, the landscape comes to life with imagery, motion, and sound effects that reflect the meaning of that particular word.
- The Spoken World boasts a stunning 4,800-LED kinetic sculpture. The spectacle is in service of creating personal, face-to-face experiences with native speakers that demonstrate what is unique about 30 different languages — many of them rare or endangered — from six continents.
Despite opening during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, Planet Word has exceeded expectations. Tickets for the first week sold out in under two hours, and virtually all reservation times continue to be fully booked. Press lauded Planet Word for establishing a new paradigm for the museum experience—one with exciting interactivity built right in.