Encounter “Real Pirates” at the National Geographic Museum

"Real Pirates" will be at the National Geographic Museum through September 2

“Real Pirates” will be at the National Geographic Museum through September 2

I got my first look at the National Geographic Museum’s Real Pirates exhibit several weeks ago, at a sneak preview the day before it opened to the public. And while I’ve listed it among weekend and weekday picks, I waited to do a full write-up until my kids (well, at least one of them) had a chance to see it, too.

There were a couple of reasons for this: 1) Generally, I just like to get their reactions, so I can relay the kid perspective along with mine when I post about activities 2) This exhibit isn’t super heavy on the interactives like most at Nat Geo; rather, it’s mostly reading and viewing without touching. I found it incredibly interesting and took my time to peruse the displays, but I wasn’t sure if my kids would have the patience, especially without a bunch of hands-on installations to enjoy along with the rest of it.

Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship illustrates the history of a notorious slave-turned-pirate ship and the world of the diverse people whose lives converged on the vessel. Owen was excited to check it out — I’d brought him a book about it after my first tour, and now he’d get to see its pages “come to life” at the museum.


And from the moment we entered the exhibit, he was not disappointed. It begins with a five-minute film that gives visitors background about the Whydah and the pirates who commandeered it. After that, large wooden doors open and lead into the rest of the galleries, from the Whydah’s origins as a slave ship to the infamous boat that was eventually lost to the sea.


Its wreckage was discovered in 1984, so much of what is seen throughout the exhibit are either real artifacts recovered from the ship or replicas of prominent features. Cannons, the anchor, coins, tools used to repair the ship, pistols, and small items like buttons are some of the real relics on display. The bell and sections of the ship — the captian’s quarters and below deck — have been reproduced to give a sense of what it was like to be on board, complete with audio of waves crashing and boards creaking, along with projections of the ocean through windows (Owen actually asked why the room seemed like it was moving).



The exhibit also includes background on the West African slave trade and piracy during the 18th century. Owen loved seeing some names he recognized like Blackbeard and Calico Jack, and he was particularly interested in the “Pirate Family Tree,” which depicted the connection between many famous pirates. As for interactives, there is a knot-tying station, a display where you can hoist a digital Jolly Roger, and opportunities to touch real booty (silver coins) recovered from the ship. Towards the end of the exhibit, we find out the fate of those aboard the ship — who survived and who was lost at sea. And beyond that, we learn what happened to those who made it out alive.



The final area focuses on the ship’s discovery and recovery. There is a video about underwater explorer Barry Clifford and his search for and discovery of the ship and the continued process of excavating the wreckage.


There is a lot to take in, and Owen was engrossed in a good portion of it. I’d venture to say many kids would be, even those who are too young to read all of the displays. The hands-on features may be minimal, but there are enough cool parts to view to keep any pirate fiend interested.

Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship will be on display at the National Geographic Museum through September 2. Admission is $11/adults, $9/ages 5-12, free for under 5. Hours are 10am – 6pm.

The National Geographic Museum is located at 1145 17th Street NW. Street parking can be tough in that area. If you drive, your best bet is one of the nearby garages. Metro’s Farragut North (red line) and Farragut West (blue/orange lines) stops are fairly convenient. *Photography is not permitted on the exhibit. My photos were taken during the media preview.

Also of note: There will be a free Pirates Family Festival featuring re-enactors, a treasure hunt, and more on June 22. Plus, the Museum is offering Pirate Birthday Parties for kids ages 5-12.

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