National Geographic Museum takes visitors on a world tour

July 15, 2011

This is the fourth in a series of weekly guides to museums
you may not have discovered.

The National Geographic Museum is, in a word, ambitious. In one day, visitors can go around the globe, millennia into the past and back to the future. “Race to the End of the Earth” follows the phenomenal quests of Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen, the Briton and the Norwegian who competed to be first to reach the South Pole. The exhibit takes you on their adventure; it’s an interactive, multimedia experience. “Formation: Earth in Motion” is an outdoor installation of Carsten Peter’s images of environments in flux. A series of panoramic black-and-white photographs make up “Machu Picchu: A Lost City Uncovered,” an exhibit devoted to some of the first images captured of that region. To travel even further back in time, explore “The Etruscans: An Ancient Italian Civilization,” a collection of artifacts from a society that dates back more than 3,000 years. The exhibits are housed in two buildings, one on 17th Street and one on M Street, separated by a courtyard.

Taking the scenic route Just how far did Scott, Amundsen and their men trek into Antarctica? They were deep enough in the interior that the sun never set in summer or rose in winter. From their respective base camps to the South Pole, the Brits had 1,800 miles to go, and the Norwegians had 1,600. It is an expanse of superlatives: the windiest, coldest, highest desert on the planet.

Sleeping with Rudolph A significant part of the “Race” exhibit focuses on survival: how these explorers tried not to freeze to death. At night, they bundled up in reindeer sleeping bags that weighed up to 17 pounds. (You can find out what the fur felt like — parts of the exhibit are tactile.) While it was brutal to have to bear any extra weight, the guys needed the warmth; temperatures could be as low as -128.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

It takes a village Unwilling to sacrifice certain creature comforts, the Norwegian team created an entire village under the snow, with rooms connected by tunnels. They even had a bathroom and a sauna. A life-size replica of part of their subterranean dwellings is on display.

Make a wish, take a bite Food was strictly for sustenance, not taste. Many of the men ate pemmican, a dried meat mixture concocted by Native Americans. Pemmican could be made into “hoosh,” a stew, to which the occasional fresh dog or pony meat would be added. It pained Scott to hurt any of the dogs in his crew, but part of Amundsen’s plan all along had been to kill dogs as they traveled and feed them to the men — and, in a gruesome twist, to the dogs he decided to spare.

Glow in the dark All of Peter’s photographs are in lightboxes and are backlit after dark, so you can see the pictures just as well at night as during the day.

Ciao, bella! In the 6th century B.C., the Etruscan civilization covered much of northern Italy. The Etruscans led remarkably advanced lives, as evidenced by the more than 400 artifacts on display here: everything from weapons to jewelry to funeral urns. Though they were eventually absorbed into the ever-expanding Roman Empire, the Etruscans left behind a strong legacy all their own.

On the road Hiram Bingham III was a 35-year-old assistant professor at Yale when, in 1911, he set out on the Urubamba River alongside two Peruvians in search of the ruins of Machu Picchu. His stunning black-and-white photographs of the journey were featured in the April 1913 issue of National Geographic. In conjunction with the exhibit, the museum is hosting a free Peruvian dance workshop and demonstration Sunday from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Exit through the gift shop The gift shop’s most popular item is the National Geographic DVD-ROM set ($79.99) which includes every map, article and photograph published in the magazine through 2009. While you marvel at 121 years of content, your kids can pick up some Mars Mud and Galactic Ooze.

National Geographic Museum

1145 17th Street NW. 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. daily; events.nationalgeographic.com. Museum admission (includes “Race” and “Etruscans”) is $8 for adults; $6 for members, students, military, seniors and groups of more than 25; $4 for children; and free for school and youth groups. Admission to “Machu Picchu” and “Formation” is free.

6To see more stories in the Exhibitionists series, visit washingtonpost.com/museums

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