In a city home to more museums than metro stops (or so it seems), Washingtonians are blessed with easy access to a wide variety of world-class exhibitions. Neighborhoods throughout the area are sprinkled with galleries, monuments and institutions housing an endless variety of historical artifacts.
But beyond the shelved relics and mounted artwork lays an equally important, but often under-looked, component of art and design: the actual exhibit space.
Designing and crafting an exhibit is a difficult endeavor that requires the unique ability to blend the physical environment with storytelling in a way that both appeals to and educates visitors. Furthermore, the time spent designing and building an exhibit that successfully captures a story can take a tremendous amount of time, rivaling the carbon dating of most prehistoric artifacts.
But Richard McWalters, director of museum operations at the National Geographic Museum, accomplishes this task on a daily basis.
With a background in industrial education and woodworking, McWalters moved to the District in 1983 to pursue a job that involved more design experience. Throughout the five years spent at that job, he refined his skills and even had the opportunity to work on the team that renovated DC’s historic Willard Hotel.
Then, in 1988, McWalters answered a blind job advertisement for a company seeking an individual with a skill set that closely matched his. That company turned out to be National Geographic, and McWalters has been there ever since.
“What I like about my job is that I still get to do the design work, but I also get to incorporate education,” explained McWalters. “We’re always teaching people about new subjects; it’s a nice blend for me.”
McWalters has spent the last 25 years working tirelessly to design and display several stunning exhibits, including the famed Terra Cotta Warriors.
“The Terra Cotta Warriors was the pinnacle exhibition in my career; I probably won’t work on anything like that again,” said McWalters, who has also worked on designing projects from pirates (“Because who wouldn’t want to see an exhibit on pirates?”), to the National Geographic Museum’s current exhibit exploring the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.
So what exactly goes into designing an exhibit space at the National Geographic Museum? According to McWalters, quite a bit.
First, McWalters and his team of curators, designers, graphic developers and engineers design the physical space that houses the exhibit, which often varies in square footage depending on the display. Next, the team develops the storyline and the concept for the showcase. Everyone then works to figure out how to best tell the story, whether it be through video, film, artifacts, etc. The whole process typically takes about one year to complete before the final product is displayed to the public.
“Bit by bit, we put all of the pieces together and merge them at the end for a final product,” explained McWalters.
McWalters does not stop building and designing when he is out of the office. In his free time, he dabbles in woodworking, antiquing, rock climbing, gardening and building Celtic rock sculptures, known as Cairns.
“I like to work with my hands; I like to stay close to the earth,” said McWalters, who also stays close to his Irish roots by taking Irish language lessons in the city.
About two years ago, McWalters traded in a home equipped with land and gardens in Sterling, Virginia for the 15th Street NW townhouse he shares with his wife, Devika, and a cat, Tula.
“We’re still working on the house, and I am still putting my mark on things,” said McWalters, who plans to keep pursuing woodworking and gardening in his new urban home.
For McWalters, the move has been an adjustment from suburban to urban, but it’s been great.
“This summer, I want to build a storage shed to house my tools and maybe even some bikes,” he explained. “But we love this neighborhood, it’s fantastic and we take advantage of everything in walking distance – especially the restaurants.”