Must-See: Aquariums as Tables and Glaciers as Centerpieces at National Geographic Gala

Custom tables and projections on giant screens dazzled 800 guests at the National Geographic Society's 125th anniversary event.

By Adele Chapin June 19, 2013, 7:00 AM EDT

Select Lucite tables served as aquariums with water and plant life inside.

Photo: Mike Busada

National Geographic Society 125th Anniversary Gala
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The National Geographic Society hosted one of the biggest events in its history on June 13, bringing large-scale projections of iconic National Geographic videos and still images to the National Building Museum to celebrate the society’s 125th anniversary. And if high-definition projections weren’t dramatic enough, the “A New Age of Exploration” gala program ended with a jaw-dropping finale: the event’s 80-foot screen flew up in a four-second reverse Kabuki drop revealing the Society’s Explorers-in-Residence, photographers, 2013 Emerging Explorers, six gala awardees, and a 27-piece brass and tympani orchestra.

It’s the first time a Kabuki scrim of this size has been installed in Washington, according to Missy Tranter, National Geographic's development director of special events. “This is the largest load in the National Building Museum has ever had. We started on Sunday for a Thursday event,” Tranter said. Projection screens lined the dining space in the museum’s Great Hall, with the 80-foot screen on a curved truss—another unique element. “Our goal was to give them lots of space to showcase their content,” said Marielle Shortell, partner at Syzygy Events International and production designer for the gala. This was also the first time black-out lids have ever been created in the space, blacking out the entire ceiling.

The event capped off this year’s annual National Geographic Explorers Symposium, when all of National Geographic’s explorers and photographers convene in Washington to meet and brainstorm future projects. “We consider it the week of our National Geographic family coming together, but this year we’re specifically looking to the future and the new age of exploration,” Tranter said. “It’s not just what we have done in the past, but what we will do in the future because there is so much left to discover.”

The “Land, Sea, and Sky” theme of the National Geographic flag inspired both the 800-person gala’s decor and menu. Custom tables served as conversation starters, including Lucite tables etched with compasses or filled with 3-D elements like seashells, and tables with wooden tops with laser-cut topographical maps of places where National Geographic explorers have made their mark. Occasions Caterers worked with National Geographic fellow and chef Barton Seaver to ensure that the three-course menu was sourced sustainably. Dishes included a seafood cocktail, farm-raised bison as a nod to land for the main course, and a pavlova for dessert presented with swirling dry ice to represent sky.

The Washington Symphonic Brass played an original arrangement of National Geographic’s theme song during the finale, and the program concluded with an announcement of philanthropic commitments from nine families and one organization in support of the work of the National Geographic Society, including a $1 million pledge by gala awardee Alex Trebek to create an endowment for the National Geographic Bee. Since January 1, the society has raised $35 million in new gift commitments to fund conservation efforts and new discoveries. 

The National Geographic Society’s 125th anniversary gala was presented by Rolex, Fox Network Groups, and RBC, with additional support provided by sponsors such as Bank of America, Fox International Channels, Geico, Cengage Learning, National Geographic Channels, PetSmart, Southwest Airlines, and SVM Foundation.

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