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Gates Foundation opens the doors, a crack, with new visitor center

Even in the restrooms at the new visitor center, the learning goes on. The images on the doors are of a "home latrine in village of Kushumhi, Uttar Pradesh, India," according to the inscription.

Even in the restrooms at the new visitor center, the learning goes on. The images on the doors are of a "home latrine in village of Kushumhi, Uttar Pradesh, India," according to the inscription.

If you’ve ever been past the huge new Gates Foundation campus near Seattle Center and wondered what goes on inside – your time has come.

The foundation is opening up its doors, at least a little bit. This weekend, a new visitor center opens to the public.

The new center is directly across the street from the Experience Music Project, built by Gates’ former partner Paul Allen. It’s meant to show the world what the Gates Foundation is trying to accomplish – and create a little bit of “transparency” at the world’s largest charitable organization, which has a budget bigger than many nations.

Location specific

The location is no coincidence. One reason Melinda Gates zeroed in on the piece of real estate they now occupy is because it’s across from Seattle Center. With so many visitors coming to see the Space Needle, both locals and out-of-towners, they saw an opportunity to bring more attention to the foundation’s lofty goals.

Getting the tour at the new Gates Foundation visitor center.

“We hope people here will have a better sense of what we do,” said Melinda Gates last June, at a ceremony dedicating the new campus.

“We’re excited to have a public place to welcome people interested in the work we are taking on,” said foundation Chief Administrative Officer Martha Choe during a media tour of the visitor center. “We just haven’t had a physical way to do that in the past.”

Visitors still aren’t allowed past the giant glass doors of the main campus or into the vast courtyard beyond.

Seeing inside the foundation

Transparency has been raised by critics of the Foundation’s influence on global priorities. A documentary aired on the BBC last month calling it “Fortress Bill” because it’s seen as secretive and hard to penetrate.

The complaint has teeth because important public policies about medicines, nutrition and agriculture in many nations might be determined at a private foundation instead of through public agencies.

The visitor center doesn’t really get into policy debates. It promotes the choices already made by foundation leaders. However, one exhibit is devoted to discussing some of the controversies, specifically around genetically modified crops, vaccines, and why the foundation does not work on climate change. Visitors can type a short comment or reaction that gets displayed in a scrolling list of comments, meant to evoke a Facebook or Twitter discussion.

Bells and whistles

And you still might get a kick out of the interactive exhibits. It’s filled with giant touch-screens that you can swipe like a home-theater-sized iPhone. There’s a room with tinker-toys to keep the kids busy (“build your own prototype to solve old problems”).

Given the focus on the foundation’s mission, there’s a surprising amount of space given over to the Gates’ family story, including baby and wedding photos. Perhaps, that’s a recognition that Gates is a superstar celebrity, although it’s explained as a reminder of their local roots and commitment to the Seattle area.

It’s also meant to answer basic questions about the foundation itself, such as:

  • What is a family foundation?
  • Who gets money and why?
  • What does the foundation do for the U.S.?
  • How do we know we are having an impact?

Tourists can compare the experience to looking at rock-and-roll memorabilia across the street or expensive glass art in the nearby Chihuly museum (currently under construction). Maybe seeing what it’s like to carry a 16 pound bucket of water for three miles is a worthwhile contrast.


The visitor center opens on Saturday, February 4th. Admission is free. Regular hours will be from 10am-5pm, Tues.-Sat.



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