By Fyllis Hockman
I’m a travel writer. Words are what I do. My stories may not always sing but I usually can put one word in front of another succinctly enough to craft a quasi-well-written article. But when I heard about the newly opened Planet Word in Washington, D.C., I was so excited, I had no words. But I knew I couldn’t get there fast enough to see all the magical ways in which words – the entire focus of the museum “where language comes to life” – can be employed in their myriad maneuverings to explain, entertain and elucidate. Interactive exhibits that talk, teach, train and titillate.
Words are everywhere. The floor you walk upon reveals the development of language from cave dwellings to hieroglyphics to alphabets from around the world. Elevators resemble libraries. No admonishments to use your inside voices here; but definitely use your words. The museum is divided into the foundations of language; all the cool things you can do with words, and ultimately why words matter.
So first, you see how babies acquire language skills. We initially babble a lot of sounds, but only retain those that find a home in our native tongue. A massive word wall houses over 1000 words that visitors call out to see how they were developed, relate to each other or integrate with other languages. The explanations of the visuals are enchanting. Everything is interactive; everything is entertaining; everything is fun.
The many side experiences in every gallery are fascinating in themselves but so easy to overlook. You might miss the signs above the entrance to the Joking Around Room: “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” Bada boom.
At the Visual Puns exhibit, check out the large picture, among many, of two suitcases, one laughing and one crying. The tag line? Emotional Baggage. Move on to a table with two computers where you and a friend get to read jokes to each other and try to make each other laugh – or not. Yes, they’re corny but you’ll laugh out loud anyway. What’s the difference between a hippo and a Zippo? One’s heavy and the other is a little lighter…. See? Very hard to keep a straight face.
The Word World offers word paintings using adjectives. Pick up the Hibernal brush and snow appears over the nature scene on the wall; the Nocturnal brush brings darkness, Tempestuous, rain and wind. Ah, but the Magical brush elicits great whimsy. Paint the deer on the wall and it becomes a unicorn; splash it across the airplane and it turns into a magic carpet. Are you smiling yet?
In the Magical Library, people appear to walk on the ceiling. Read a descriptive plaque to a wall mirror and a 3-D diorama pops up before you – open the drawer below to find the book from which the scene is taken. I shook my head in further disbelief when I opened a random book to a designated page and the book lit up as a narrator read the story and relevant images kept re-appearing next to the book. Who thinks of these things???? It all feels very surreal. Always a good word….
Feeling a little overwhelmed? Find the secret room – no help from me here – that takes you to the poetry nook – a quiet space in a very sensory-overload environment in which you get to sit back, relax, breathe out and let a sonorous voice reciting poetry re-vitalize you.
Want some tips on public speaking? Head to the Lend Me Your Ears Auditory Gallery. Learn when to effectively pause in your remarks. When repetition reinforces your message. Or how the use of metaphor may better convey your meaning. Then you can go into a private recording booth and deliver your own speech. Fortunately, I presume, without any hecklers in the audience.
Beware of the I’m Sold Gallery where you may have to come to terms with how susceptible you are to advertising. Here you’ll encounter how words are used to persuade and change people’s minds through ads, videos and social media. Subtle but very effective to the easily gullible. That would probably be all of us. With, of course, deference paid to those slogans that have become part of the English lexicon: Where’s the Beef? What’s in your Wallet? Melts in your Mouth…
And think about this. What do you say when you drink something refreshing? Ahhh, yes? So it’s no accident that three major bottled water companies are named Evian, Aquafina and Dasani. All have the Ahhh sound. Coincidence?
The final gallery is devoted to How Words matter. People, known and unknown, talk about how words have changed their lives, how the power of certain words, expressions, stories significantly impacted them.
Well, maybe not the final gallery should you choose to go to the bathroom before you leave. Not surprisingly, more relevant words that’s not your usual bathroom graffiti… Heed the call of nature. See a man about a horse. Take a whiz. Tinkle. Gives whole new meaning to potty humor.
I left the museum with a smile on my face, thinking to myself: What a wonderful place! Four little words. One declarative sentence. And yet it says so much. Words are funny that way…
The museum is free though donations are encouraged. For more information, visit planetwordmuseum.org.