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''Sometimes we'll design, build and create in-house, but we have limited staff. We fill out our exhibition schedule with exhibits from other museums as well. This fall we're opening 'Birds of Paradise.' That's something we have basically curated and designed ourselves. It will open here, then go on the road.''
Opening Nov. 1, ''Birds of Paradise: Amazing Avian Evolution,'' will be an exhaustive exhibit featuring photographs of all 39 species of birds of paradise, the result of 18 expeditions in eight years made to New Guinea and parts of Australia by ornithologist Edwin Scholes and photographer Tim Laman.
While admission into the museum is $8 – or less with various discounted rates – entry into the M Street Exhibit Gallery is free. Don't let that fool you into thinking it's any less engaging than the main museum. In the gallery now, at least until Aug. 5, is ''Beyond the Story: National Geographic Unpublished 2011.'' Get a little fright from Joel Sartore's unpublished photograph of Egyptian fruit bats in Uganda, particularly when you read of his possible exposure during that photo safari to the extremely dangerous Marburg virus. Michael Nichols's photograph of an orphaned elephant with his Kenyan caretakers sets a happier tone.
Not long after ''Beyond the Story'' closes, visitors may enjoy a new photo exhibit, ''Desert Air: Photographs by George Steinmetz.'' To capture these images – over the course of 15 years – Steinmetz, ''one of National Geographic's top expedition photographers,'' learned to fly a motorized paraglider. He may not have risked exposure to tropical viruses, but he certainly risked a sandy crash landing to deliver stunning images of these remote landscapes.
That M Street Exhibit Gallery, even when empty, has its own allure. First, there's the ceiling. Look straight up and you'll see stars.
''It's reflective of January 1888, the night sky above D.C.'' McWalters explains of those points of light floating two stories above and their significance. It was January 1888 when the National Geographic Society was formed.
The second draw to that M Street space is the traffic. While museums generally offer spaces for visitors and the ''backstage'' areas for staff, any number of National Geographic staffers and associates pass through this gallery.
''We think that's a big benefit,'' McWalters says. ''You might see Jane Goodall walk down the hall. James Cameron was here back in June. Just to watch people's faces light up…. It really means a lot to the visitors when they can get that kind of contact.''
For members of the National Geographic Society, there's a third draw: the NG Dining Hall. ''It's a very good cafeteria,'' McWalters promises. For the nonmembers, there's always the Terra Firma Coffee Shop, though it's closed on weekends.
But what McWalters would really like people to know about is not the cafeteria. He wants everyone to know about the ever-changing nature of the museum, as kinetic as the world it showcases.
''Presently, there are no permanent galleries,'' he says. ''We have temporary exhibitions and we're changing them out all the time. Generally, it's a three-month cycle. There's always something new here.
''Our mission is to inspire people to care about the world. We have the whole world as a resource. It's quite a broad palette of content.''
The National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th St. NW, is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Admission is $8; or $6 for members of the National Geographic Society, seniors, students and military. Youth admission, ages 5 to 12, is $4. For more information, call 202-857-7700 or visit nationalgeographic.com.