If you find yourself vacationing in our nation’s capital, you’ll naturally want to visit all of its major attractions, such as the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Smithsonian museums and Planet Word.

“Planet Word?” you ask. “What the heck is Planet Word?” I’m glad you asked, because the answer is simple: It’s a private museum about words. And, like the government-funded  Smithsonian museums, it’s free (but there’s a suggested donation of $15).

The museum is located not far from the White House, at the corner of 13th and K Streets, inside the 150-year-old former Franklin School, which was designed by architect Adolf Cluss and recently treated to a years-long $35 million renovation. After that, another $25 million was spent on its voice-activated, interactive exhibits.

Feeling more like a word-themed amusement park than a museum, it was designed with children from 10 to 12 years old in mind, because “Kids at that age are the ones who are most likely to stop being readers, to stop reading for pleasure,” said museum founder and CEO Ann Friedman. But forget about that, because Planet Word offers enough amazing exhibits to render word wonks and technophiles of any age speechless.

The sign outside says, “The museum where language comes to life” and it isn’t kidding. Before even reaching the museum’s entrance, you walk beneath the “Speaking Willow,” a motion-detecting sculpture by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer that whispers to visitors in hundreds of languages as they enter the museum.

Once inside, you’ll see the museum’s gallery map, which tells you that Planet Word’s purpose is to “inspire and renew a love of words, language, and reading in people of all ages.”


On the first floor, you can find out just how words matter in recording family history. You can learn how advertisers come up with just the right words to get you to buy something. And you can shop in the museum’s “Present Perfect” gift shop. (Among the museum’s many other puns is the “Word Association” to which its members belong.)

Exhibits on the 53,000-square-foot building’s second floor include “Lend Me Your Ear,” which showcases many of history’s most famous speeches, as well as the “Joking Around” humor gallery. The level’s main exhibit, though, is its library, in which books can magically come to life.

Visitors to the museum’s top floor can venture to “Lexicon Lane,” where they can try to solve one of the room’s many puzzles. Or they can see how we go from babbling babies to talkative toddlers in the “First Words” exhibit. But two other exhibits on the top floor are clearly the main attractions.

First is the “Where Do Words Come From?” experience, which features 1.000 words (which is about 1 percent of the words in the English language) on a 20-foot electronic wall and explains the origins of many of our most common words.

And nearby, visitors will find the amazing “Spoken World” globe, which bursts with colorful designs and words in 31 languages.

And then there are the bathrooms, which last year made Planet Word a finalist for Cintas’ Best Restroom award. “I knew I wanted to have bathroom humor,” said Friedman. “This is a small museum to cover all language arts, so we needed to use every surface possible.”

Themes in the building’s commodes range from synonyms for “restroom” (such as “John”) and euphemisms for using the bathroom (“I have to see a man about a horse”) to puns (“To pee or not to pee”) and different names for animal droppings (did you know that deer leave behind “fewmets”?).

So even if Planet Word’s exhibits don’t do the trick, the museum’s bathrooms alone should be enough to make you want to go there.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at jlwitherell19@gmail.com.

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