Planet Word

‘Voice-Activated’ Museum Planet Word Opens in DC

A new museum built to showcase words and language called Planet Word has opened in Washington, D.C. The free “voice-activated museum” combines art and interactive exhibits to highlight how words continue to shape the world.

Wordy Exploration

Planet Word combines stories with technology in ten learning galleries. An interactive conversation with a wall of words relates the history and development of English, using what visitors say to pick out words to spotlight with the embedded lights. Technology is also crucial to an exhibit with smart paintbrushes for drawing words. Visitors can also practice virtual conversations with speakers of rare languages. On the performative end, visitors can show off their own speech-giving talents in a soundproof room with a teleprompter that plays eight famous speeches or in a poetry nook in the library, as well as visit a karaoke area for learning about songwriting and performing their favorites. Outside, artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer installed a metallic weeping willow that continually plays 364 voices in almost as many languages. The museum is inside the Franklin School, a very appropriate choice as it was there that Alexander Graham Bell told Watson he needed him in the first-ever wireless voice transmission.

“I am so thrilled to open Planet Word’s doors to the public and cannot imagine a more fitting time for a museum of language to open in our nation’s capital,” Planet Word founder and CEO Ann Friedman said in a statement. “Democracy depends on literate citizens. I hope that Planet Word can provide a forum for civil discourse and a place where our community, in all its vibrant diversity, can gather to share the words that bridge differences and forge solutions.”

Audible Museums

In the two years since breaking ground, Planet Word raised $20 million to reach this moment. Though free, there is a suggested donation for visitors. Planet Word’s opening ceremony was necessarily virtual due to COVID-19, and the capacity at the museum is limited for the foreseeable future with mandatory masks. Complimentary electronic pens for interacting with screens without touching them are provided. The pandemic doesn’t preclude making digital connections to people and museums both at Planet Word and with interactive voice apps. At Planet Word, the collective Shared_Studios has set up one of their Portals to simulate people’s immediate presence from around the world in the same room as museum visitors who want to have a conversation with them.

For those who don’t want to go to a museum but want to hear and see it regardless, there’s a slowly growing selection of options via voice assistants. Art Museum is an Alexa Skill built on the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection as a voice-first art museum. A finalist for the $100,000 Alexa Skills Challenge: Alexa Conversations, Art Museum turns the voice assistant into a guide to the museum’s collection that can understand natural language and explain the exhibits’ context. For a more purely audio experience, there’s the Audio Museum of Art (AMA). Using a Don Draper soundalike as a guide to introduce and comment on the exhibits, this “museum” shares vintage radio commercials extending back to the 1940s. The virtual options won’t replace a visit to a physical museum, but if Planet Word’s experiments succeed, the technology they represent could become an integral part of future museums.


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