By Gretchen McKay


A day at the beach, without sand or surf

Categories : Travel
Visitors are swallowed up in a sea of translucent plastic balls at the National Building Museum’s “The BEACH” exhibit, which is meant to simulate the ocean/Gretchen McKay

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Summer is quickly coming to a close but if you’re headed to the nation’s capital before Labor Day, there’s still time to squeeze in a quick trip to the beach. Just don’t worry about packing sunscreen, a beach bag or even a bathing suit.

“The BEACH” exhibit at the National Building Museum’s Grand Hall features neither sand nor sea, and the only chance you’ll get a sunburn is during your walk from the National Mall to the 30-year-old cultural institution on  F Street NW.  But like a day at the shore, you’re sure to have fun, especially if you’re traveling with children.

Conceived in partnership with Brooklyn-based design firm Snarkitecture, the interactive architectural installation aims to re-create the “familiar experience” of a summer day at the beach. Only instead of dipping their toes into the Atlantic, visitors get to hang their feet and/or immerse their bodies into an “ocean” of plastic balls. There’s almost 1 million of the tennis ball-sized translucent orbs, filling a sloped shoreline that stretches 50 feet from a bank of wooden beach chairs to a mirrored wall that reflects its stark, white seascape.

In all, the temporary exhibit encompasses 10,000 square feet of the museum’s first floor, along with two of its four colossal marble Corinthian columns.

It’s a fun place to escape the heat and humidity of a D.C. summer, but gaining entrance? Not so much. The lines are long (expect to wait up to two hours on weekends), and once inside, you’ll probably have to wade through a sea of  like-minded tourists to find a spot from which to dangle your legs off the exhibit’s “pier.”

More than 80,000 people have visited the exhibit since it opened July 4, according to Brett Rodgers, the museum’s vice president for marketing and communications. “Interest has been very strong and we’ve been at capacity literally every day.”

As a result, it’s noisy. There are tons of little children. And all the good spots for lounging are taken. (In other words, it’s very much like the real beach.) Also, although rules prohibit any throwing of balls, you might get hit in the head with one anyway. Kids, after all, will be kids.

I, rather stupidly, jumped into the bright-white “ocean” with my shoes on and purse open. Big mistake. I immediately sank a good 3 feet  (think quicksand instead of water), and it took my husband a good 2 minutes to pull me up to the side — to the amusement of many — as I struggled to keep my sandals connected to my toes. Touching the bottom felt impossible. But what fun!

“This isn’t a beach,” I heard one 20-something call to another. “It’s a mosh pit!”

There’s no time limit once inside, and if you get hungry or thirsty while playing, Union Kitchen, a D.C.-based food incubator has a snack concession serving ice cream, candies and other snacks, including a cheese board with dried fruit and crackers.

And if the thought of “swimming” in a giant pool of balls that have been touched by thousands of bare feet gives you the willies? Not to worry. The balls are made with an antimicrobial called Germ-Block, eliminating any chance of catching cooties. The museum also does “spot cleaning” when necessary.

“The BEACH” is part of the museum’s annual “Summer Block Party”  that includes special programming, exhibitions and events for all ages. It follows the success of last summer’s “BIG Maze,” a 60-by-60-foot wooden maze inspired by ancient labyrinths, garden and edge mazes of 17th- and 18th-century Europe. Among other exhibits included in the entry price are a photo exhibit of  renovations to the Washington Monument and Washington National Cathedral, captured from the scaffolds, and a collection of  60 three-dimensional models — suspended from the balconies of the Great Hall — that showcase how local culture and climate shapes architectural design. There’s also a play-work-build room where visitors big and small can play with blocks.