Walk through the Visitor Center opening Saturday at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters near Seattle Center and you'll get a sense of how the world's largest private philanthropy works at home and abroad. The exhibit's creators hope you'll also get something more personal: a chance to imagine how you might help the world.

Share story

Even the restrooms get you thinking. Each stall door bears a large photo of the rustic outhouse or latrine you might be using if you were in a remote village in Africa or India.

Outside the restrooms, a message above the drinking fountains asks: What if you had to walk three miles for that sip?

And down the hall, hands-on displays prompt you to consider what cause you might adopt, what challenges you might undertake.

Walk through the $15 million Visitor Center opening Saturday at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters and you’ll get a sense of how the world’s largest private philanthropic organization — with some 960 employees and $33.5 billion in endowed assets — helps humanitarian efforts at home and abroad.

The exhibit’s creators hope you’ll also get something more personal: a chance to examine your own interests and priorities and imagine that the next great change on the planet might start with you.

“We want to inspire people to use their own talents and skills to attack issues they care about,” said Martha Choe, the former Seattle City councilwoman who’s been the foundation’s chief administrative officer for 3-½ years.

The 11,000-square-foot Visitor Center is the newest feature on the foundation’s $500 million campus that opened last June across Fifth Avenue North from Seattle Center.

It will offer the public’s first in-depth look inside a foundation that has funded projects in all 50 states and more than 100 countries, seeking to improve health, create opportunity, advance education and fight poverty.

Admission is free to the Visitor Center, which is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday — closed Sundays and Mondays.

In a succession of galleries, the visitor encounters hands-on experiences, from the strictly informational to the imaginative, even fanciful.

Some are simple, such as the weighted water buckets, each 16 pounds, that visitors are invited to lift and imagine having to haul long distances, as people in some parts of the world must do just to meet life’s most basic need.

Other features are more complex, hinting at the organization’s high-tech pedigree. Exhibits that present Gates Foundation projects can be routinely updated digitally to reflect new successes or challenges.

In the Innovation & Inspiration Gallery, visitors will create “inventions” from a colorful array of Tinkertoys, pipe cleaners and other supplies, then take digital photos of their creations (and themselves), which instantly appear on display screens in the gallery. They can even email photos of their inventions to friends or post them on their Facebook pages.

In other galleries, visitors will turn large wooden rollers, spin a globe, push levers, turn cranks or type on keyboards — all of which engage or modify some feature of a display.

Diane Andolsek, project lead for the center, said studies show physical activity stimulates chemicals in the brain that optimize learning, so that lessons people learn while active are more likely to be retained.

Even the timeline on a wall of the Family & Foundation Gallery is interactive. Push a panel with a date printed on it — say 1955 — and the panel spins to show a photo on its reverse side, in this case, Bill Gates as an infant.

Andolsek said the center hopes to inspire the next generation of innovators, and is already booking trips by school groups. The typical visitor, she said, is likely to take 45 to 90 minutes to experience the exhibit.

Visitors are welcomed in the Voices Gallery, where portraits of the foundation’s three co-chairs — Bill Gates, Melinda French Gates and William Gates Sr. — are hung along with those of more than 180 others, including foundation employees, grantees and beneficiaries.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was created in 2000, expanding on work done in the 1990s by the William H. Gates Foundation and the Gates Library Foundation. Since its inception, the foundation has made grants of more than $26.1 billion — an amount equal to more than $42,000 for every man, woman and child living in Seattle.

The foundation may be best known for its global-health efforts and anti-poverty programs, but Visitor Center exhibits note it’s also a major donor to local causes.

To date, the foundation has invested more than $3 billion in Washington state. Key priorities in this area include preventing and reducing homelessness among families, expanding programs for quality early learning, boosting libraries’ use of technology and responding to an assortment of needs through a community grants program.

Each section of the Visitor Center acknowledges the role played by the government agencies, civic organizations and private-sector groups that receive Gates Foundation grants and put them to work.

“That’s essential,” Choe said. “We can’t accomplish anything without our key partners.”

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com