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The landmark Franklin School Building in Washington, DC, now houses Planet Word, the world’s first voice-activated museum celebrating the “the power, beauty, and fun of language." SEGD contributor Franck Mercurio recently spoke with Ann Friedman (founder and CEO), Nathan Adkisson (Local Projects), and Roger Brown (Solomon Group) to learn more about this exciting new destination.
In June of 1880, the world’s first wireless voice communication was transmitted from the roof of Washington, DC’s Franklin School to the studio of Alexander Graham Bell located a block away at 1325 L Street. Charles Sumner Tainter, Bell’s assistant, successfully sent the voice message across a beam of light using the soon to be patented “photophone.” Tainter’s voice traveled a distance of only 700 feet, but it later proved to be a revolutionary milestone in the history of human communications.
Fast forward 140 years to October 2020. The historic Franklin School building still stands, but now houses a new institution where spoken language continues to be communicated in unique—and even revolutionary—ways. Planet Word bills itself as “the world’s first voice-activated museum” devoted to the “the power, beauty, and fun of language and to showing how words shape the human experience.”
Unlike traditional museums, Planet Word is not centered on a physical collection; rather it presents a series of experiences, engaging visitors with the spoken word, often through voice recognition software.
“In a typical museum with a collection of artifacts, the visitor looks, observes, and interacts but relatively passively and through reading labels and information,” says Planet Word’s founder and CEO Ann Friedman. “But at Planet Word, a museum built on ideas and not a collection, visitors don’t just receive information, they talk back to most of the exhibits and receive responses!”
But how did Planet Word’s designers accomplish this?
“Ann challenged us to completely reimagine [the traditional] paradigm and put visitors in control of every experience,” explained Nathan Adkisson, Director of Strategy and Associate Creative Director at Local Projects, the New York firm charged with exhibition design and media production. “We designed nearly every experience at Planet Word to use the visitor's voice as an essential ingredient. Many are spectacular, like "Where Do Words Come From?" which involves speaking with a giant projection-mapped wall built out of 1,000 three-dimensional words.”
Measuring 42 feet wide by 22 feet tall, Planet Word’s “wall of words” is truly monumental in scale and provides visitors with an immersive introduction to the history of the English language and the origins of many of its words—some of which were borrowed from other languages.
“Using projection technology, sounds, and animation, the [wall’s] narrator tells the story of various ways words become part of the English lexicon,” explains Friedman. “But [the narrator] doesn’t just tell the story—the visitor participates and has many opportunities to answer questions posed by the narrator. Depending on the responses and words picked up by voice-recognition software, the story twists and turns. This guarantees that from visit to visit, the experience differs.”
Planet Word’s other experiences have similar levels of interactivity. In “The Spoken Word” gallery, iPads (surrounding a massive globe constructed of 4800 LEDs) encourage visitors to converse with native speakers and learn about the world’s diversity of languages. In “The Library” gallery, patrons can choose a book from a shelf, open it onto a bookstand, and watch a written story come to life through animation and narration. And in “I’m Sold!” a spiral pathway lined with interactive video screens presents words of persuasion, and presents how the language of advertisers can convince consumers to buy, buy, buy!
Other Planet Word exhibits appeal to visitors’ more artistic sides. “Word Worlds” encourages visitors to “paint with words” on large interactive screens, visually reflecting the emotional content of language. And “Unlock the Music” allows visitors to sing karaoke style and learn the songwriter’s craft of lyric writing—what makes a hit and what doesn’t?
This range of visitor experiences within Planet Word is purposefully designed to engage a variety of interests by exploring different aspects of language throughout the museum.
“The result is that your visit unfolds with a very stimulating rhythm,” explains Adkisson. “You get museum fatigue when every room is the same kind of experience, but at Planet Word, you know it's going to be active, but you won't know how until you step into the gallery. It's like listening to a great album.”
Additionally, Local Projects paid particular attention to the design of the graphic identity for each gallery and the museum as a whole.
“The [Planet Word] graphic identity uses a large color palette to give each of the nine galleries its own identity,” says Adkisson. “And the underline became a very useful and distinctive motif for identifying key words and phrases and unifying the system throughout the various physical and digital applications.”
Orchestrating the installation of Planet Word had its challenges. Restrictions brought on by the pandemic, the “dos and don’ts” of working inside an historic landmark building, and the complexity of the technology used throughout the various galleries all presented potential setbacks. Yet despite these challenges, Planet Word opened to the public before the November 2020 elections, as originally hoped and planned.
The fabricators of Planet Word’s exhibitions, Solomon Group of New Orleans, worked closely with Local Projects to build and install the experiences, which all required the careful coordination of the physical and digital components.
“This was a really complicated project,” says Roger Brown, E&E Development Manager at Solomon Group. “We put a lot into it—as did Local Projects—but the result is shimmering. It’s beautiful.”
“This new area of the ‘phygital’ in exhibit design and experiences is where the physical and the digital combine,” explains Brown. “It’s where [visitors] interact with the fabricated environment; it’s where you see things going [in exhibition design] more and more.”
“The public has been elated with this new type of museum experience,” says Friedman about Planet Word. “We hear comments about how interactive the exhibits are, unlike at most museums. [Visitors] comment on how much they have learned.”
More than 150 years after it was built, the power of the spoken word still engages audiences inside the landmark Franklin School building, where teachers taught language arts for decades and where two inventors made history with wireless voice communication. Here, the legacy of language continues.
SEGD’s New York Chapter hosted a presentation of the project given by Jake Barton, Principal and Founder of Local Projects on November 4th, 2020. A video of that discussion is available here. Because of COVID-19, Planet Word is temporarily closed to the public, stay connected for updates at their website: www.planetwordmuseum.org. For a fun video tour of Planet Word, click here.