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Word play: A visit to D.C.’s Planet Word

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Exploring Washington, D.C.’s newest museum, Planet Word, you might think you’ve entered an amusement park, and in some ways, you have!

“Underlying everything is a sense of fun,” said Planet Word’s founder and CEO, Ann Friedman. “It’s a museum built on ideas, and then turned into experiences.”

But the fun here is all about making everyone (but especially 10-to-12-year-olds and their families) feel the fascination, the inspiration and the wonder of words and language. “My whole life, I would say, built up to doing something like this – being engaged with words and language.”

Friedman, a philanthropist, spent 12 years teaching in elementary schools. “I want people to pay attention to words – the ones they use, the ones they hear, to be more aware of their power, of their beauty,” she told CBS News National correspondent Chip Reid.

Planet Word, Washington’s newest museum, takes visitors on a trip through the fascinating world of words, language and reading in a former school-turned-literary wonderland.

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And for Friedman, words are clearly all in the family. She’s married to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

She conceived the idea seven years ago for what she’s calling the world’s first fully-voice-activated and immersive museum.

Reid asked, “How important to what you’ve done here is the fact that you yourself were a first-grade teacher?”

“It certainly helped me think about how to make an activity interactive and hands-on and participatory,” Friedman replied.

Falling down the rabbit hole at Planet Word. 

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She gave Reid a tour, from a magical library, where dozens on books seem to come alive by talking to you, through a hidden door – a secret passageway to poetry – and a humor gallery for “joking around.”

A magical gallery with mirrored ceiling is a portal to the magical world of reading: Planet Word CEO Ann Friedman with correspondent Chip Reid.  

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Planet Word was created in the historic 150-year old Franklin School, which was long abandoned and badly decaying when Friedman won the city’s OK to restore and rehabilitate it. She showed Reid the original stairs, that thousands of school children went up and down since 1869. “These look pretty nice now, the ceramic tiles,” she said, “but they were covered with a black mastic, and we had to find something to take that off. It turned out to be baking soda, and water and a lot of elbow grease.”

Putting this massive project all together with 130 tons of steel and 1,200 cubic yards of concrete was both complicated and a labor of love, spanning two-and-a-half years.

The Spoken Word gallery explores the diversity of languages around the world. 

Friedman herself — from a family of major shopping center developers – footed all of the building’s restoration costs ($35 million). In return, the city awarded her a 99-year lease at $10 a year.

She raised another $25 million for startup costs and all the high-tech exhibits in this 53,000-square-foot museum.

The techniques of creating song lyrics are showcased in a karaoke gallery.   

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Reid asked, “What are you most proud of when you walk around this building?”

“That I rescued the Franklin School, a national historic landmark,” she replied. “I feel good about everything that I’ve done here.”

Feeling good about this longtime Washington symbol of education, now fully refreshed and reopened, inspiring all visitors about the power of language, words and reading.

CBS News

      
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Story produced by Allen Alter. Editor: David Bhagat.



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