Despite the obvious challenges, we went ahead and opened Planet Word in the “midst” of the COVID-19 pandemic. (I almost wrote “middle,” but that would imply that we had a pandemic end-date, which unfortunately we don’t. Probably more accurate to say we opened in the “muddle” of the pandemic!) Based on our opening date, October 22, 2020, the midpoint of the pandemic would actually have been June 2021 — so much for “middle”!
By opening prior to the 2020 election and aftermath, we could participate in the word-related debates our country was having (and is still having) about news and information, about freedom of speech and cancel culture, about race and inclusion. Our exhibits could remind people to use their words carefully and how powerful they could be — we could see words moving people to violent action and to peaceful protest right on our screens and in print.
By opening in 2020 we could provide a bit of joy to people who felt comfortable venturing out to a museum. And we made sure a visit to Planet Word would be as safe as possible — providing hand sanitizer stations, social distancing, crowd control, limited admissions, styluses for touchscreens, individual headphones, plastic gloves, and more.
But there’s another important date in our short history, too: April 1, 2021. That’s the day we reopened after a 4-month closure when the COVID caseload skyrocketed in the D.C. area. Though the pandemic has receded steadily since then, despite a temporary spike caused by the Omicron variant, the effects are still with us — in ways we mightn’t have predicted. Some positive, some negative, some a little mixed.
Our biggest pandemic-related move was pivoting to a virtual platform for programming — programming that we had always assumed would take place in the museum. But that change was one of the positives: We found we could reach a much bigger, national audience and attract speakers who would never have been able or willing to travel to Washington. Thanks to our online reach, our audiences kept growing and growing, as did our community of word enthusiasts, and our name became more widely known. We also designed and delivered Virtual Field Trips on subjects related to museum exhibits, which we were able to present to classrooms all over the country.
So if those were “positives” of the COVID fallout, here are some of the less-happy challenges we faced: We basically had to throw out our financial model. One major way we had intended to thrive financially — and stick to our determination to keep free general admissions — was by renting out our event spaces. But, of course, that business dried up as people were reluctant (or not permitted) to gather indoors. Likewise, on-site school field trip business mostly dried up. And for the months we were closed, there were no visitor donations or purchases from our nicely stocked gift shop.
But feeling more confident that the worst was behind us and that we could provide a safe visitor experience, we reopened on April 1, 2021 — yes, it’s been exactly a year, no fooling!
Seeing demand for entry passes rise, we added hours and the number of visitor slots. And soon, we started seeing growing interest for private events and field trip bookings, too.
Yet even Planet Word is suffering a bit from “long COVID.” While we’re enjoying busy galleries, sold-out events, and the recent successful opening of Lexicon Lane, not everything is back to normal. For example, I asked our merchandiser, Marylynn Mack, why we hadn’t received a lot of the gift shop items that we had discussed ordering months ago. Her response was telling:
Covid has tightened supply chains for wholesalers and retailers. Items may be ordered, then back-ordered, and may or may not come, especially imported goods. Generally, the [gift] businesses that survived have more orders than they can handle. It’s taking longer for goods to arrive, and items remain unavailable due to high demand and/or shortages. Many large and small vendors will no longer attend [gift] shows, because they cannot accept more business or don’t want to scale up due to uncertainty.
We’re lucky that Marylynn has been able to keep our shop, Present Perfect, abundantly stocked, a challenge no one had to face two years ago. Similarly, contractors have been understaffed and overbooked due to the impacts of the pandemic, and consequently projects take a lot longer to complete — problems I know we’re all facing, not just the museum.
Overall, though, things are nearing a brand-new normal for Planet Word — a state we’ve never been in before. Thank you to all of you for supporting us through our inaugural year — to the nearly 900 members and 70,000 visitors and more than 11,000 newsletter recipients whose interest has let us know we’re filling a need in the museum landscape. Let’s hope that this second April Fool’s Day of our operating history will herald in another year of delight and joy and learning (and increased earnings) and see our auditorium, galleries, and classrooms bustling with visitors. And that’s no joke!
—Ann Friedman, founder of Planet Word
P.S. And since I’ve got your attention: I was so concerned to read — weren’t you? — that due to nationwide paper shortages caused by the restrictions against timber imports from Russia, publishers of books, newspapers, and dictionaries will no longer be allowed to print words longer than 15 characters or 5 syllables.
. . . April Fools!