Planet Word, the Washington, D.C., museum dedicated to inspiring a love of language, opened a new permanent exhibit called Lexicon Lane on March 26. A combination escape room and puzzle hunt, Lexicon Lane is designed to resemble an old village and offers 26 unique puzzle “cases” for visitors to solve.
But before you even enter the museum, there’s a tree in the way. It is virtually impossible to enter the museum without noticing the 18-foot “Speaking Willow” that is stationed in front of its K Street entrance.
That is intentional. The museum’s founder and chief executive, Ann Friedman, wants the celebration of language to begin before visitors reach the front door. And Ms. Friedman is very passionate about her mission. (She is married to the New York Times Opinion columnist Thomas Friedman, who also sits on the museum’s board of directors.)
Even if visitors somehow walked by the huge aluminum sculpture, the bell-shaped speakers hanging from its branches would be likely to stop people in their tracks.
Walking under those speakers triggers a light show and a chorus of murmured poems, songs and idioms in approximately 400 languages. It is a message from the tree’s creator, the contemporary artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, that the preservation of language and, in turn, intellectual diversity is important.
“Even if we don’t understand most of the languages in ‘Speaking Willow,’ the visitor can enjoy the intonation, rhythm, nuance and other aspects of speech,” Mr. Lozano said in an email. “The very fact that we don’t understand is a humbling message that language is developed over centuries — and learned over years — and that our own thinking is shaped by the languages we do understand.”
The museum is inside the former Franklin School, a national historic landmark on 13th and K Streets in Northwest Washington. Historic landmarks have protected status, so the path to renovation and building permits was convoluted. Nikki Sertsu, the senior director of exhibits and special projects — and an experienced professional in that area — was brought in to help with that process. Ms. Friedman hired the international architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle to restore the dilapidated 150-year-old building to what the museum calls its original “modern Renaissance” glory.
The rehabilitation of the building took two years.
Planet Word’s language experience begins as soon as visitors step inside the door. Embedded in the floor are examples of cave art and hieroglyphics, and a small kiosk just inside the entrance offers a random short story, poem or excerpt from a classic book at the push of a button. The output resembles a store receipt, but what is on the long piece of paper is far more interesting, and this bit of literature is free to anyone who wants it.
The call to recognize language as a powerful tool is everywhere. In one room, visitors are shown how advertising copy can be used to manipulate people into buying things. In another, they learn how to successfully tell a joke and why certain words are funnier than others. “Painting” on a large computer screen using brushes labeled with words such as “somnolent” or “autumnal” changes the pictures on the screen to reflect those words, teaching vocabulary and art simultaneously. In the library, with its dim lighting and two-story, floor-to-ceiling bookcases, a series of framed mirrors contain surprises for those who follow the instruction to repeat a displayed sentence out loud.
Everything is colorful and visually pleasing, which suggests that the target audience is school-age children. Because the museum has been open during the Covid-19 pandemic and for less than a year, however, the true audience has yet to be established. Ms. Friedman and Patty Isacson Sabee, the museum’s executive director, said that while children were welcome and encouraged to visit, their audience so far has been millennials, retirees and English learners, who seem to be particularly fond of the exhibits that teach them about idioms. Idioms are unpredictable in terms of meaning and contain nuance that may be lost on language learners, so any help is appreciated.
Most of the exhibits at Planet Word are visual, touchable and highly interactive. That, too, is intentional. They are geared toward inspiring those who are not necessarily interested in reading words off a page to learn language arts in a fun, alternative and — most important — engaging way.
“If you’re not fond of reading, let’s think of something else you can do, whether it’s poetry or being a stand-up comedian or running for student government and giving a speech,” Ms. Friedman said about her educational philosophy. “I wanted to show that there are so many ways that people can work with words, whether you like to read a book or not.”
Encouraging a love of language is important to Ms. Friedman, a former language-arts teacher who now runs the museum full time with Ms. Sabee. It’s not just about being able to pass an exam.
“I think being literate is essential to a strong democracy,” she said.
Constructing Lexicon Lane
In 2019, Ms. Friedman and Ms. Sabee commissioned proposals to develop a space on the third floor that would offer small groups and families the opportunity to solve language-based puzzles together. The contract was awarded to Lone Shark Games, a game and puzzle design studio in Seattle. The studio immediately recognized that there would be challenges.
“As a historic location, the Franklin School required a lot of care and attention,” Keith Richmond, the lead designer at Lone Shark Games, said. “We’d constantly need to revise the expected dimensions of the space and where electrical and fire systems would cover. We also spent a great deal of effort making sure that everyone could equally participate, such as by opening up areas to better wheelchair access and adjusting heights of various features.”
The pandemic brought everything to a halt, including the construction of the exhibition. Planet Word intended to open its doors to the public in May 2020, but lockdowns made that impossible. The museum opened in October but was shut down again because of the spread of the virus. The official opening was on April 1, 2021, with Covid precautions — such as wearing a mask — firmly in place.
Mr. Richmond believes that Lone Shark Games’ proposal stood out from the others’ because it was a more hands-on experience that didn’t rely exclusively on technology to enjoy.
“I suspect it was also just more fun. Fun is kind of our thing,” Mr. Richmond said.
The core concept for Lexicon Lane, as Mr. Richmond tells it, always involved a shared environment where visitors could play with different cases while exploring an imaginative location.
Upon entering, visitors report to the Lexicon Lane reception desk and are given a case to solve. There are currently 26 with five to eight puzzles in each one, and visitors are advised to reserve specific stories in advance.
After opening a container that matches the theme of the case — a space-themed case was tucked inside an astronaut helmet, for example — families or small groups of puzzlers are free to roam the room, looking for clues and solving the puzzles allotted to them. The museum’s directors estimated that the average time spent on a case would be approximately 45 minutes to an hour.
“I don’t even care if you like puzzles or not,” Ms. Friedman said, laughing. “This is such a cool space with so much to look at. It’s a very social, participatory experience.
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