Behind the scenes, he keeps it real
Growing up in Washington in the 1970s, a pudgy, big-eyed Ivan Campbell acquired the nickname Spanky. “My father was a ‘Little Rascals’ fan,” Campbell, 45, says with a laugh. The nickname stuck — at least until Campbell started working as a technical coordinator at National Geographic Museum in 2003. There, thanks to the varied and unusual tasks he undertook while setting up and overseeing the museum’s exhibitions — including cracking chicken eggs to display the embryos and feeding carrion beetles — people started calling him “Dr. Campbell.”
Although he doesn’t wear a lab coat, Campbell has kept that nickname throughout his 12 years at the popular museum at 17 th and M streets NW, where he’s still busily engaged in unheralded, behind-the-scenes work, such as watering the vertical garden in the museum’s “Food: Our Global Kitchen” exhibition last year and checking on the fish in this year’s “Monster Fish: In Search of the Last River Giants.”
“Our main objective,” Campbell said before the latter show closed recently, “is to walk around and make sure there’s no dead fish in here. We just try to keep everything clean and prepped up for the visitors.” (An outside contractor came in weekly to clean tanks and provide food.)
That means arriving at 7:30 a.m. — 21/2 hours before opening — to ready the museum for would-be explorers.
“We make sure everything is in place,” Campbell says. “Make sure all the Plexiglas is wiped down. Make sure all the audio-video stuff is on.”
Campbell has performed some memorable tasks while working for the museum. Perhaps the most demanding was in 2009, when the popular exhibition “Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor” came to town as the last stop on a four-city tour. The warriors, created 2,000 years ago to protect the tomb of China’s Qin Shihuangdi and only just discovered in 1974, were quite fragile, and the museum had welcomed 15 of them — the largest grouping of the life-size figures to tour the United States. The warriors drew thousands of visitors, including ambassadors, politicians, sports stars and other notables.
The exhibition, which sold out its run and required extended hours to meet demand, was the most difficult one Campbell had ever dealt with.
“That took up the whole first floor,” he says. “It was a lot of hours, a lot of time, a lot of buildup.” But it also was rewarding to install, adds Campbell, who was drawn in by the excitement surrounding the show and the exoticism of the figures.
“It’s always a learning experience when you’re working in a museum, because there’s a lot of different things you learn and do,” says Campbell, who says his guiding philosophy is to “make sure that everything is pretty much fun for everybody — not just for me, but for the visitors and everybody.”
Campbell’s first exhibition was the interactive “Biodiversity 911: Saving Life on Earth,” on display when he arrived in 2003. He was hooked: “After that I loved it. I’m loving it.”
It is that enthusiasm that has carried Campbell through the more rigorous parts of his job, such as unpacking and installing exhibitions. The current “Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archeology” arrived in 12 tractor-trailers and required three weeks of 10-hour shifts to set up, from forklift to assembly to finishing touches. Packing up shows for traveling displays can be just as demanding, and Campbell is often called upon to travel to the receiving city to help unpack and set up.
“I’ve been to Texas, Florida, Boston, New York,” he says. “And I believe I’ll be going to Reno,” which is the next stop for “Monster Fish” and the home of Zeb Hogan, who helped put the original exhibition together and stars in Nat Geo Wild’s TV series of the same name.
Some of Campbell’s jobs require eggshell care, from the warriors (“You don’t want them to crack”) to the chicken embryos, which he had to prepare for display.
“You had to crack the [shell] just right for the egg to stay in that position,” he says.
But for Campbell, the odder the task, the better. “Whenever there are strange exhibits, I like to get in with the program,” he says. Even if that means supplying a steady diet of frozen dead rats for the carrion beetles in the “Traits of Life” exhibit. As one National Geographic staffer put it, “The smell was quite something, as you might imagine.”
Campbell, who lives with his wife and two daughters in Southeast Washington, says his job has made him quite popular with his children. “Every time they were out of school, they wanted to come to work with me,” he says. In fact, his youngest is now so interested in science that she wants to study medicine in college.
Campbell says he tries not to bring work home, but after taking down one exhibition, he adopted a gecko as a pet and named him Gripper.
“That was interesting,” he says. For one thing, Gripper’s behavior was erratic.
“Sometimes geckos get in a funky mood,” Campbell says. “They just won’t move for a day or so, and then they get active.”
Or such was the diagnosis of Dr. Campbell.
Ivan Campbell, left, arrives for work at National Geographic Museum before opening hours, making sure the exhibits are in order. One task involved keeping beetles alive by feeding them a supply of frozen rats. For the museum’s recent “Monster Fish” exhibit, Campbell kept watch on the live fish on display, right.