The World in Washington

National Geographic Museum puts it all in reach

There is a sort of magical portal at the corner of M and 17th Streets NW. Step away from the street traffic and the noise, and the National Geographic Society welcomes you into exhibits designed to spark a greater interest in Earth, from our planet’s animals and ancient cultures, to technology and tropical rain forests. There’s nothing, really, that escapes Nat Geo’s curiosity. And the National Geographic Museum, part of the society’s D.C. headquarters campus, takes the windows into that curiosity – National Geographic magazine and its sister publications, sites and shows – and turns them into a door visitors walk through. Step onto the campus and into the world of National Geographic. You can almost hear the signature notes of Elmer Bernstein’s bah-bah-bah-BAH-bum National Geographic theme song.

”It’s certainly an interesting place to work,” says Rich McWalters, director of museum operations. The 24-year veteran adds that it’s been an interesting place since long before he arrived on the scene.

National Geographic Museum

National Geographic Museum

(Photo by Todd Franson)

”The museum has been in operation since well back in the early 1930s,” he explains. ”At that point, in the lobby, there was a small exhibition space. One of the earliest things was the lecture program that goes back to that time.”

As the years went by, the National Geographic Society’s headquarters grew from its initial building into a small campus, with landscaping alone that’s inviting enough to pull passersby in from the sidewalk. Meanwhile, window exhibits hug the museum.

”At one point, it was relief maps and artifacts,” McWalters says of the display windows. ”We decided to change that into a photo gallery. We’re known for our photography.”

Walk by the buildings now and take a peek at ”Wicked Weather,” a collection of photographs of floods, fires and other climatic calamities, rendered eerily beautiful at the hands of talented, globetrotting photographers. The exhibit closes Oct. 23.

You’ll have to move a bit more quickly if you want to catch the museum’s primary exhibition, ”Titanic: 100 Year Obsession,” running through Sept. 9. Occupying one of the museum’s two main halls in its 17th Street building, the exhibit presents newspaper articles of the construction and sinking, impressive props from James Cameron’s Titanic, a beautiful scale model of the ship, short films, and interactive displays with iPads and Kinect technology. With Kinect, the museum designed a watery view on the floor of one corner of the gallery. The glowing rectangle offers a glimpse of what the ship looks like on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, step closer – step onto the rectangle, actually – and the deep blue sea parts to show portions of the famed vessel in pristine condition.

”We always like to go down after an exhibit opens and see how visitors are interacting – particularly kids, who are much more courageous,” McWalters observes.

The Titanic exhibit will soon be joined by ”1001 Inventions: Discover the Golden Age of Muslim Civilization,” occupying the second of the 17th Street building’s two large galleries. ”Named ‘Best Touring Exhibition of the Year’ at the Museums and Heritage Excellence Awards, ‘1001 Inventions’ uncovers a thousand years of advances in science and technology that have had a huge but hidden impact on the modern world,” National Geographic promises.

”That’s a 6,000-square-foot traveling exhibition,” McWalters explains. ”This was just in L.A. and Istanbul. We’re really interested in this one.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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