Color Me ‘Verdant’

In this new D.C. museum, you can play with words.

March 2022

Reading time min

Two children using brushes on a wall

LEXICON LIFE: Brushing up on adjectives. Photo: DuHon Photography

Inside the iconic Franklin School in Washington, D.C., is a futuristic museum that pays homage to the building’s past. Like the 19th-century school, Planet Word is a free institution created for the public. But where once there were classrooms with desks in neat rows, there now are 10 immersive exhibits spanning three floors, designed to unleash your inner word nerd. It’s exactly what founder Ann Bucksbaum Friedman, ’75, envisioned: a high-tech museum that makes language—and by extension, literacy—fun. “How could we be a strong democracy,” asks the former teacher, “without a nation of readers?”

Planet Word is all about, well, wordplay. “This museum wants you to talk to it; it’s going to talk back,” says curator of programming Rebecca Roberts during a virtual tour available on YouTube. “This is not the sort of place where you stand back and admire the artwork.” In fact, you sometimes create the artwork. In the “Word Worlds” exhibit, visitors paint not with colors, but adjectives. Below a digital mural that blankets three walls, fiber-optic paintbrushes rest in cups with labels like verdant, nostalgic, luminous. Paint the sky tempestuous and watch a storm brew.

Visitors paint not with colors, but adjectives.

In the wood-paneled library, ordinary-looking copies of To Kill a Mockingbird and Corduroy lay inert on shelves, but spring to life when opened on specially designed tables. Flip through cookbook Salt Fat Acid Heat and you might hear the sizzling of oil or watch projections of dough rising from the page into golden domes. Around the corner is a karaoke gallery in which each song is prefaced by insight into its story, an idea the exhibit designers refined after consulting with singer-songwriter Paul Simon. Even the website has gotten into the act: At launch, it featured an anagram devised by enigmatologist and New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz.

“This is the only museum in the world about language like this,” says board member Sara Mark Lesk, ’76, a senior educator at the National Gallery of Art. The most innovative aspect, in her opinion, is the exhibits’ ability to meet everyone where they are. Regardless of interest and aptitude, “your eyes are wide open, you’re amazed, you feel smart.”

Kali Shiloh is a staff writer at Stanford.

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