The historic Franklin School building in downtown D.C. will reopen May 31, 2020 as Planet Word, the city’s first-ever language arts museum, following a major renovation. The museum says it will also be “the world’s first voice-activated museum,” featuring interactive galleries and exhibits where visitors’ speech will trigger reactions. A “Speaking Willow” sculpture in the museum’s courtyard standing 20-feet-tall will play audio from 500 suspended speakers.
The museum is the brainchild of philanthropist Ann Friedman, who serves as its CEO, and a partnership with the District government, which owns the Adolph Cluss-designed building and, in 2017, selected Friedman’s development team. (Patty Isacson Sabee is the executive director.) The team broke kicked off construction in June 2018, and since then Planet Word has received $16 million in donations out of a $20 million fundraising goal meant “to cover the creation of the museum’s exhibits ... and start-up operating costs,” according to a release. Among the preliminary donors are Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Poetry Foundation, AT&T.
Built in 1869, the 51,000-square-foot Franklin School is located at 13th and K streets NW, just across from Franklin Square. It is both a national and local historic landmark; its past includes Alexander Graham Bell conducting the first-ever wireless voice transmission from its rooftop in 1880 (by “photophone”). Last year, the development team removed historically protected interior materials—such as original plaster wall, ceiling finishes, and wainscoting—from the building without the necessary permits, leading the city to issue a stop-work order. It later struck an agreement with preservation officials to reverse and mitigate that damage.
Renderings of the museum follow below. Beyer Blinder Belle oversaw the design, Whiting-Turner is the general contractor, and Local Projects is arranging the galleries and exhibits.