The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s six-floor headquarters, across from the Seattle Center, is an imposing complex of glass and curved architecture.
Hence the need for an inviting, accessible new visitor center!
Opening to the public this Saturday, the visitor center’s high-tech interactive exhibits invite participation, not just passive observation.
But how exciting is philanthropy and development aid to the average person, especially in these tough economic times?
At a pre-opening event this week, I asked Microsoft founder Bill Gates what a young kid should take away from the center. Across the street are less pretentious attractions like the Space Needle and Experience Music Project.
Stepping back, and with a couple of long pauses, he said:
“Well, hopefully they’ll know a little more about people who live in different conditions and there’s a lot we can do to help them. And you know, hopefully they can be inspired to do some giving when they get a chance to do it. And you know, it’s supposed to be fun and broaden your view of what’s going on in the world.”
I’m not sure how convinced he was about the “fun” part. To be honest, he seemed a little bored.
There is some stuff for kids to do here – gears and knobs to turn, and one play area with constructible bits.
But I’m not sure a twelve-year-old will be very engaged with floating info screens about genetically-modified agriculture assistance. Or captivated by a looping video of the Gates Foundation president talking about biotechnology.
Still, Carl Ferret, one of the visitors center’s staff, told me a troop of girl scouts had a blast when they visited last week. “It was hard to pull them out.
The kids really just get into everything. It was just amazing,” he said. “A lot of folks are very interested, but they just don’t know a lot about what the Foundation does. They think we have research labs here.”
He said there are tour groups booked all the way into the Fall of this year.
On the flip side, for adults who have learned to be skeptical of the aid industry, as I have after two years working in post-earthquake Haiti, there’s just not enough information about specific projects.
We all want to “ensure that all people have the chance to lead healthy and productive lives.” But there are few nitty-gritty details to make the case that the Gates Foundation is effectively doing around the world.
Politically, there are intriguing questions around whether the Gates Foundation’s philanthro-capitalist model is a just one in the first place.
Clearly, the Foundation does some great things. But a red flag went up for me when I saw a “Shoes for everyone” poster. It spotlights Tom’s Shoes, a company that donates a pair of shoes to a child in need “with every pair you purchase”.
Critics have pointed out that there’s no great need in the developing world for shoes. I never met a person who couldn’t afford to buy shoes in Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere.
In fact, I’m sure my Haitian friends would be offended by the notion of accepting a pair of donated, flimsy shoes from the United States.The donated shoes sometimes undermine local vendors, anyway.
The Foundation’s Visitor Center, on the corner of 5th and Mercer, opens to the public on Saturday and admission is free. Check out the photo gallery below for a preview.
There’s a “What would you do if you had your own foundation?” interactive board. Maybe if Microsoft was less aggressive in exploiting Washington’s tax loopholes, I’d have more money in my pocket. Another poster asks, “Could you carry water for your family?” accompanied by fake water buckets.
So is the visitor center more inspiring than insulting? A little of both? You can probably tell where I stand, but judge for yourself.