The National Geographic Museum is easily among my favorite museums in DC. They truly know how to present an exhibit to intrigue and engage visitors of all ages. Owen still talks about all of the cool exhibitions he’s seen there over the years, from the geckos in 2010 to Animal Grossology last year to the recent Titanic display.
What makes them so appealing, especially to kids, is that they aren’t just rooms full of pictures and displays to view. They are full-on experiences that utilize multimedia and a variety of interactive installations to educate, enrich, amuse, and wow guests.
And I am happy to report that Nat Geo’s two current exhibits, Birds of Paradise: Amazing Avian Evolution and 1001 Inventions: Discover the Golden Age of Muslim Civilization follow suit. We experienced them this past Monday when the kids were off from school, and everyone — the kids and I, along with friends who joined us — had a great time exploring both.
“Birds of Paradise” is all about the avian creatures for which its titled. Found only in New Guinea and Australia, there are only 39 known species of the birds that are a case study in the evolutionary power of sexual selection, and all are featured in the exhibit. Their brilliant plumes and funny mating rituals are documented in stunning imagery and amazing footage captured by scientist Edwin Scholes and photographer Tim Laman over eight years and 18 expeditions to the isolated places the birds inhabit.
But it was the interactives that really drew in the kids. Sasha loved spinning a dial that let her view a male bird’s changing feathers that seemed to reveal a smiley face pattern as he flirted with a female. Both kids had fun pushing buttons on a display to hear all of the different bird calls. Owen and his friend Dylan spent a good amount of time pretending to snap photos of birds, a display that showed the difficulty in getting shots of the birds in the wild. They also enjoyed a digital touch game where they had to match females with males to make a love connection. And perhaps the most fun of all was Dance Dance Evolution, where participants mimic the mating dance of males while other guests spectating can vote by pushing button for their favorite contestant. These are just a few of the fun and fascinating things there.
Since our tickets were good for the whole day and for all of the exhibits, we lunched down the street at Potbelly, then headed back to the museum to tour “1001 Inventions,” a showcase of some of the great discoveries of early Muslim civilization. That experience began with a short film that has kid appeal and Ben Kingsley as a main character. From there, we headed into the main area of the exhibit, where large installations, many with interactive games and cool displays immediately attracted the kids.
Through these we learned about the many ways Muslims laid the foundations for many principles of science and technology centuries ago. A motion-sensing video game has guests flapping their arms to keep an early flying machine aloft. Number and word games demonstrate early connections to modern mathematics and language. A giant elephant clock and associated displays explain how, 800 years ago, it was one of the first clocks. A kind of mini-planetarium welcomes guests to explore the stars and learn star names derived from Arabic words.
There are many, many more interesting facts to discover and displays to explore throughout. And just about all of them are accompanied by videos of the inventors (well, actors playing them) talking about their creations and influence on the modern world. And I had to stifle a laugh when Owen asked me why all them were looking at and talking to him while he was walking around. “How can they see me if they’re inside the TV’s?” Ah, that was one the Muslims missed, so I had to do a little explaining myself.
Needless to say, I highly recommend the exhibits. And you can view them in one visit, as admission to the museum gets you access to both. Entry is $8/adults, $6/seniors and students, $4/ages 5-12, free for 4 and under.