What's in a word?
For Ann Friedman, SOE/MAT ’98: passion, purpose, power.
A former first-grade reading teacher, Friedman is founder and CEO of Planet Word—the world’s first voice-activated museum and the only one devoted to celebrating language and nurturing literacy skills. The $60 million museum debuted in 2020 in the historic Franklin School, which served as DC’s flagship public school when it opened its doors to 900 students in 1869. Eleven years later, Alexander Graham Bell sent the first wireless communication from the roof of the four-story building to his lab on nearby L Street, using his “photophone”—the precursor to fiber optics.
The storied building, which stood empty for more than a decade until Friedman landed a 99-year lease from the city, at an annual cost of $10, has been renovated from top to bottom. But the history that lives in its bones—as a place of innovation, of playing, learning, and engaging—embodies the spirit of Freidman’s modern, interactive ode to language.
“The juxtaposition between the old and the new is very cool—a match made in heaven,” she says.
Contemporary artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Speaking Willow welcomes visitors, gently whispering sayings and poems in nearly 400 languages as they stroll under the mesmerizing metal branches. Inside, the 22-foot-tall talking wall (pictured) traces the linguistic roots of more than 1,000 words, while visitors “paint” with colorful adjectives like luminous, autumnal, and tempestuous to transform the hue and mood of a digital “dictionary.”
“Ironically, I didn’t want to create a museum with a lot of reading or labels, but rather a museum where people would learn by doing. We show, we don’t tell,” says the Bethesda, Maryland, resident. “We want visitors to develop a love of words, so we show them all the ways they can be used: by giving a speech, listening to poetry, or watching a book come to life.”
Friedman, herself a lifelong reader, hopes the experience sparks in museumgoers a new interest (enroll in a linguistics course) or reignites a dormant one (dive back into that poetry anthology). But more than anything, she wants visitors to leave knowing the power of words—and empowered to use them for good.
“How do you want to use your words? Do you want to use them to heal and build empathy and bind our country together? Or do you want to use them to wound? We are at a critical moment in our country, and I’m so happy that I have this platform where I can be a voice for using words in a positive way.”