Glass cases. Placards. Audio tours. These are the mainstays of museums as we know them, places where, generally speaking, people go to see artifacts of art and history placed safely behind glass. But when Local Projects, a design firm best known for their work the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, was hired to design Planet Word, a tribute to language, they recognized that typical approaches couldn’t work.
Because a typical approach would just be a library.
Instead, Local Projects created the opposite of a place you go to read. Planet Word is a place you go to talk. “This is the world’s first voice recognition powered museum,” says Jake Barton, founder of Local Projects. “It’s a museum where we want to put people into an active state.”
Planet Word opens October 22nd in Washington, D.C. Founded by Aspen Institute Trustee Ann B. Friedman, the museum is located inside the historic Franklin School, which was build in 1865 as the original model for the nation’s first public school system. Much like public education, general admission to Planet Word is free.
The experience begins on the top floor of the building, a trick that Local Projects says helps sidestep the museum fatigue that kicks in during a visit, which can make the prospect of stairs or even an elevator seem exhausting. There, visitors are greeted with a giant, 21-foot word statue, which contains 1,237 words from the English language. In front of the sculpture, there’s a series of microphones for an interactive quiz. As a projection show highlights specific words in the sculpture to guide people through the history of English, it challenges visitors to do things like distinguish words of German origin from those of French. Speaking single word answers into the microphone keeps the experience going.
“[The sculpture] doesn’t need a lot of verbal feedback for people to feel like they’re having a conversation,” says Ben Millstein, communications and marketing manager at Local Projects.
Another room—the building’s Great Hall, originally designed with tall ceilings for gym class—features a 4,800-LED kinetic sculpture in the middle. It’s a globe, surrounded by a perimeter of tablets. On these screens, 30 individuals from around the world appear at face height, and they actually encourage you to say their names and other words from their native language aloud.
It’s a purposeful, positive feedback loop to being vulnerable, which articulates the museum’s entire tone of inclusiveness. Consider the nervousness or apprehension with which you might try to say a foreign name for the first time. Even a 2016 Kamala Harris ad playfully chastised people for saying her name with the incorrect rhythmic emphasis. But at Planet Word, instead of getting the stick for being wrong, you get the carrot for being right. When you speak a foreign word properly, the globe bursts with a mini light show from its speaker’s location of origin.
The kinetic globe has another trick, too. It can fold up into the ceiling, collapsing into itself, to get out of the way. After clearing out the tablets, the Great Hall can be used for events—which is the main way the museum plans to earn revenue.
Planet Word didn’t want to model a library, but the museum does include one. The space is designed to look traditional, with the wooden walls and shared reading tables you might imagine. The difference here is that, when you pull one of 100 books off the shelf and lay it down to read, that book comes to life with graphics that literally spill off the page while a narrator discusses the work. In Alice in Wonderland, animations of Alice and giant mushrooms spring off the page, and the Cheshire cat grin grows so creepily wide that it can’t be contained and slices onto the desk.
Moments like this demonstrate Local Projects’ unique ability to leverage simple, established technologies to create special experiences. A projector is hidden in an overhang at the table, and an RFID tag is in each book, so the projector recognizes the book on the table.
“It’s much more about the metaphor than the pyrotechnic fireworks,” says Barton. “That’s what a book does! It has this amazing world that spills past the pages.”
Other highlights in the museum include an area dedicated to humor, where people are paired up to read jokes to one another and make the other person laugh, and a room where you can grab a digital brush to repaint a scene on the wall as “surreal” or “magical.” (Paint over a horse with the magic brush, and it turns into a unicorn. Paint over a plane with the surreal option, and it transforms into a flying carpet.)
The final cherry on top of the whole experience is a karaoke stage where you get to belt out Beyoncé’s Single Ladies (or a number of other popular songs). Here, poetic strategies like repetition “all the single ladies, all the single ladies” are underlined for your attention and education, while you can sing to your heart’s delight into the mic.
With few actual artifacts to speak of or seasonal special collections coming in, Planet Word is designed to attract repeat visitors in another way. Namely, all of these exhibits can be updated with new content: New songs, new jokes, new paintings, and new books.
“It’s really like a playlist version of the museum,” says Barton. “It allows you to see these commonalities of language through all these cultural expressions.”