Be­hind the scenes, he keeps it real

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSEUMS - BY ROGER CATLIN Catlin is a free­lance writer. style@wash­

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.

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