D.C. Attractions Go Digital

Tech takes museums and art galleries to new interactive heights.

Two blocks from the White House, visitors gawp at gilded murals and the reputed tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher. A few miles south in Alexandria, Virginia, school kids interact with Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson as they navigate early American battles and political problems. Has the D.C. area fallen into some wacky, space-time continuum? Nope. It’s just that innovative electronic elements have invaded area museums and historic attractions faster than you can say “touch screen” or “virtual reality.”

The high-tech exhibit revolution brings with it art shows formed entirely of light and sound and virtual globe-trotting experiences like the aforementioned Israeli church. The latter is currently part of an exploration of the architecture and history of Jesus’ tomb at the National Geographic Museum, where crowds hit the Holy Land using
 3-D glasses, videogame-like headsets and screens. “It’s like time travel in Technicolor,” remarked one baseball-capped visitor.

National Geographic Museum

“It’s never been more important, especially to younger generations, that we allow guests to be a part of the story,” says Rob Schenk, senior vice president for visitor engagement at Mount Vernon, where the impressive “Be Washington” experience plants guests in a faux colonial meeting
hall with touch screens disguised as slanted desks. They’re then plunged into video reenactments of George Washington’s battles and political dilemmas, and forced to make decisions with help from advisors like an impassioned Hamilton (played onscreen by a dark-haired dude in natty breeches) or a prim, ponytail-wearing Jefferson. Participants vote on whose advice they’d heed, with a big screen revealing how everyone voted and what Washington actually did.

Mount Vernon

Technology, not surprisingly, lends itself especially well to shows at D.C.’s historic sites and museums. “If you do it well, digital elements can take a lot of information and distill it into a simple act,” says local exhibit designer Jeff Howard, whose firm powered interactive elements of the Holocaust Museum’s “Americans and the Holocaust” show, like the touch-screen tables spread with computerized replicas of 1930s and 1940s newspapers.

And at the jumbo new Museum of the Bible, a dizzying array of interactive and immersive elements both educate and entertain, no matter your religious position. You can hear from video doppelgangers of early Christian leaders (Erasmus, Gutenberg) in a section on history and wander through the Disney-esque Old Testament exhibit where the tales of Noah, Eve et. al. get recounted via an image of an eerie burning bush and an audio of locusts plaguing the Israelites. Particularly dramatic? A dark and stormy room devoted to Noah’s Ark that exits into a mod, white-walled room with soothing rainbow-hued projections.

Museum of the Bible

Other local attractions are also ramping up tech features. At the International Spy Museum, wannabe James Bonds can rent an iPad-like GPS device and embark on “Spy in the City” missions gathering clues and solving a case in blocks around the museum. And the segregated lunch counter section at the National Museum of African American History and Culture uses touch screens to help visitors delve into the protests and positions of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

But the newly immersive trend at museums and galleries isn’t all spycraft and serious issues. Sometimes, lights, cameras and other elements just create fabulous imagery and thoughtful experiences. Take the year-old Artechouse, a 150,000-square-foot showcase for changing exhibits by top names in video and projection work.

Past shows have included geometric laser light displays choreographed to techno music and a springy video riff on D.C.’s iconic pink cherry blossoms. The latest show, “Fractal Worlds,” stars Dutch artist Julius Horsthuis’ mathematically inspired, colorful 3-D imagery projected to moody music. “Since the beginning of civilization, art has been used to tell a story,” says Artechouse cofounder Tati Ana. “This was accomplished through paintings, books, photography, and then film. Now we use more innovative technology, and it’s very representative of the age we live in.”