Why the New Gates Foundation Visitor Center Isn't Just for Kids

This Saturday, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation opens its public visitor center at its swish new headquarters across the street from Seattle Center (440 Fifth Ave. N). Seattle mag editors got to tour the beautiful space on Wednesday with chief admin officer Martha Choe.

The center was conceived as a gateway where individuals can better connect with the important, but often distant, work the Gates foundation does. We were somewhat skeptical going in; would this be a self-serving congrats center? But the vibe is upbeat, empowering and very absorbing. More "It Takes a Village" than "Look What We've Done!" In a way, it seems to take cues from social media SOP and informs at the same time that it invites a din of comments and contributions from its followers-er-guests. In other wordsit's an educational setting that listens as much as it talks.

Here are a few highlights:

1. "Voices," and impactful display which features recordings and photos of foundation employees, grantees, beneficiaries and more:

2. The world's least-boring timeline is in the "Family & Foundation" room, where Choe is demonstrating how to spin wooden panelsa la Vanna White—to reveal important dates in the Gates Foundation's history (including Bill and Melinda's wedding).

3. A floor-to-ceiling list of all the grants made by the foundation, which revolves on a conveyor belt to give each entry equal "face time":

4. Choe demonstrates how a wooden globe acts as a joy stick for a giant screen displaying Foundation projects dedicated to countries around the world:

5. Empathy patrol: heft these two 16-pound buckets to get a sense of what children in water-challenged countries do every day to get fresh water

6. Even the restrooms are designed to remind us that many people do not have access to even the basic facilities we take for granted. In this picture posted on the Vistor Center's Twitter page, one of the restroom stall door illustrates what kind of bathrooms other people in the world are forced to use.

7. Finally, the center tries to inspire visitors to articulate their own ideas for addressing the world's problems in almost any medium you can think of: typing it and seeing it display instantly on a virtual billboard; answering a prompt with a sculpture made of pipe cleaners, or writing it on and old-fashioned piece of paper. At the end of your visit, you're invited to write down a pledge, a promise or a declaration, leave it on a metal "tree" (shown below) and also take someone else's for inspiration to carry with you beyond the walls of the center. All of this isn't just paying lip service to "hands-on" learning: the center's content will be updated throughout the year, based on visitors' feedback and contributions.

Clearly a wonderful destination for school field trips, it's also safe to say that the center is high-tech and beautiful enough to interest even the most cynical grown-ups. The space is full of natural light and impressive green building materials, including locally-sourced reclaimed wood and wall insulation made from recycled blue jeans. If these walls could talk, they would nag you loudly about sustainable building practices!

The only opportunity for interaction this place is missing is a fair-trade coffee cart (if you let a local place brew it, Bill and Melinda, Seattleites will come!).

But even sans the call of caffeine, stop by the Visitor Center next time you're in the neighborhood. You will definitely learn something here—if only another reason to appreciate that such an organization exists in our city...and our world.

Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Free admission. The Gates Foundation Visitor Center, 440 Fifth Ave. N; 206.709.3100; gatesfoundation.org

Corporate and school tours are available. Call the number above or contact: info@gatesfoundation.org

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