Main Content

The Gates Foundation Visitor Center

The Gates Foundation Visitor Center (GFVC) is something of a misnomer. True, the stories of founders Bill and Melinda Gates appear early, and yes, the history of the world’s largest philanthropic organization is also explained, but then the dry “who, what, when, where” corporate style approach comes to an end. Unlike many other visitor centres of its kind, the GFVC has become a must-visit destination in Seattle.

“We don’t really fit into a museum or visitor centre category,” explains Charlotte Beall, a creative consultant for the three-year project who jumped at the chance to become the GFVC’s Senior Manager. “Most visitor centres provide entrée into a headquarters, but our vision was to inform, inspire and motivate.”

The Gates family actually occupies just one small component of the “Family & Foundation Gallery.” “Family” refers to the thousands of people who work with the Gates Foundation to make the world a better place, from grammar school students to African village doctors, to each and every visitor that passes through the door.

“We want people to feel that they are also part of the family when they enter the Center and that everyone deserves to live a healthy and productive life,” Beall explains. “The message should be clear: we all share a respect for life, and we can all be part of the solution.”

The Gates Foundation Visitor Center was Melinda Gates’ personal project. She participated in every detail, directing the creation of each exhibit from concept to construction. The space and messaging reflects her understated manner, someone who, as she witnessed inequity throughout the world, made it her mission to work for change without calling attention to herself for doing so.    

Beall’s background designing children’s museums is also on display. Almost every exhibit is interactive. The Family & Foundation Gallery may contain a timeline, but the story is hidden behind a series of panels, inviting visitors to piece together the story like playing the old memory game, “Concentration.” Turning wooden panels not only provides tactile reinforcement to the learning process, but also launches the idea that every good deed has a source and that our own benevolent goals link together to make a difference in the world.

The “inspired involvement” theme recurs throughout the GFVC. Each gallery contains several keyboards where visitors can express their impressions and propose solutions. These ideas are broadcast across a large theatre screen within the gallery, and also sent to foundation offices for future consideration.

The “Partnerships” gallery reinforces this message. Introducing partners and grantees, the collaborative path is demonstrated repeatedly as visitors rotate a wooden globe to scroll a screen of global projects. Press the corresponding panel to reveal the matrix of the solution, the affordable vaccine that was researched and manufactured in Europe, transported to East Africa, explained to the local village elders, administered by the clinicians, and received by the children. A set of movable gears demonstrates that many cogs lighten the workload, reduce the poverty and create healthier opportunities. 

The opportunity to impact the world echoes throughout the galleries. We hear it during Melinda Gates’ TED Talk, one of several films that loop in the open theatre between galleries. We see it in the animated scroll containing myriad organizations that have benefitted directly from Gates Foundation grants, the exact totals and projects displayed below on a searchable screen. The Gates Foundation Visitor Center does not ignore the overwhelming burdens wrought from tackling many of the world’s largest challenges – clean water, infectious disease, overpopulation – but a message of optimism permeates the softly constructed and warmly lit environment.

“We want visitors to experience empathy,” explains Charlotte Beall, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone. “But our intention is to focus on the solutions and collaborations rather than the apparently daunting magnitude of the challenges.”

Several exhibits hint at these burdens. We’re invited to lift two 16-pound buckets, the average daily supply available to much of the world. A sign indicates that the average three-mile commute with the water is equivalent to 18 round-trips to the Space Needle, visible beyond the large picture windows. The bathroom stalls contain photomurals of rudimentary toilets from other countries, informing us that 2.5 billion people don’t even have a clean place to go to the toilet. “Aren’t you relieved?” the signage asks.

The history, partnerships, and data eventually lead visitors into the “Innovation and Inspiration” gallery, not surprisingly the most interactive of all the environments. Fill out an analogue “DRAW your CAUSE” and “I PLEDGE to” notecard then place the card upon the “Tree of Change.” Chart a course of action, compose a customized bus shelter advert, join the interactive mural of portraits or begin work inventing a gadget that may improve thousands of lives. 

A ninety-minute tour devoted to potential solutions for the world’s underserved population might deplete one’s energy. However, on the day we visited the room buzzed with potential as a group of secondary school student leaders from central Washington State spread out to work up ideas that might one day make all the difference.


Written by Crai Bower

Image credits:

Seattle Gates Foundation Visitor Center © Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation